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Europe's War on Tobacco

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Tags Corporate WelfareFree MarketsTaxes and SpendingPolitical Theory

12/19/2016

Governments worldwide crack down on the consumption of tobacco. We know that smoking is bad for one's health, but governments manage to create a new set of health risks through their interventions. The War on Tobacco is amongst the most misguided doctrines in behavioral policy, and yet politicians continue to enforce it. The side effects on private industry as well as personal health have long been ignored by advocates for smoking-freedom. Nevertheless, these side effects exist. 

Smoking Bans Harm Small Businesses and Are Ineffective

A 2008 study in Germany proved what associations representing the restaurant and bar industries had claimed for a long time. A comparison between federal German states which had implemented a smoking ban with states that had not, showed that the ban reduced consumption of  beverages in restaurants and bars. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, beer-industry representatives claimed the tobacco ban boosted the sales of canned beer in stores, as people preferred to take their drinks outside than to sit in bars that were required to ban the consumption of tobacco. In the United Kingdom, pubs across the country had lost so much trade as a result of the smoking ban that some business became eligible for a tax cut. "Health reports" by the left-leaning BBC continuously ignored the effect on local pubs, while some media outlets pushed for outdoor smoking bans as well. Politicians have been hasty to show statistics that today's businesses are doing just fine, but these claims are distorted by the fact that many pubs have closed since the bans were enacted. In the UK, the number of pubs (which has been on a radical decline since the 1980s) fell to the lowest level in a decade, with 27 closures per week.

Naturally, smoking bans should be an option for private businesses, yet only if they are voluntary. With an increasing amount of people becoming non-smokers, this should be a free-market no-brainer: smoke-free bars are an expanding niche market. But surely, allowing for freedom to choose is not how government works: big government is all about centralization and standardization.

Moreover, smoking bans don't actually reduce smoking. Data in France (which implemented its smoking ban in 2008) shows that consumption of tobacco products only correlates with prices.

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Source: Institut national de prévention et d'éducation pour la santé (INPES) (National Institute for Health Prevention and Education in France

In fact the quantity of tobacco sold immediately after the ban rose by 1,500 tons. The French government then promptly reacted by increasing the price increase level by 300 percent over the next three years (between 2010 and 2013, the price increased by €1 per pack on average; 80 percent of the price of every pack are taxes).

Advertisement Bans Are Free-Speech Bans

In Europe, Germany belongs to the few countries still allowing advertisement for tobacco products in sampling, outside billboards, and in the cinema. Recently, however, the German government has decided to ban both sampling and billboards, while restricting cinema ads to those preceding movies rated 18+ (knowing in the last five years, movies rated 18+ made up 2 percent of all movies, thereby effectively banning it).

Some voices intend to dispute this new legislation. In fact, German constitutional expert Prof. Dr. Christoph Degenhart sees the law as an infringement on freedom of speech:

Considering existing and extensive regulation [of tobacco products], further restriction of tobacco advertisements would be unconstitutional. This is especially true for outside ads, ads in cinemas, ads at the point of sale and sampling. The WHO Framework on Tobacco Control (FCTC) indicated no obligation to implement such bans. A federal law would therefore be beyond the competence of the federal government.

The problem here is that European countries are already far from being free-speech absolutists: if tobacco ads aren't free speech, then should whisky ads not also be illegal? In Europe, asserting that this leads to a slippery slope is not a stretch: in France, companies selling foods containing fat, salt, and sugar are required by law since 2007 to add written or spoken warning messages explaining that their products are unhealthy and telling people to stop snacking and start exercising.

Anti-Tobacco Lobbyism Creates Room for Conflicts of Interest

Anti-tobacco lobbyists recognize it is also highly profitable for companies retailing products designed to help people to get off smoking. In May 2016, for example, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported in its printed version that the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis had close ties to the German Cancer Research Centre and the anti-tobacco activist group Wissenschaftlichen Aktionskreis Tabakentwöhnung (WAT), which in English means the "Scientific Activist Circle for Giving Up Smoking." Interest groups such as WAT have called for products and therapies used through Novartis to be reimbursed by the public healthcare system. They have also rejected all scientific research proving that the use of e-cigarettes was an alternative for quitting smoking, even advocating their ban through the federal government. Novartis has also been accused of bribing doctors and pharmacies in South Korea in an effort to convince them to promote the company's drugs.

Free-Market Solutions are Ignored or Suppressed

In response to continued legal attacks on smoking and evidence of smoking's health effects, vaping has revolutionized the tobacco industry: many smokers switch to these handheld devices to burn flavored liquid. Unfortunately for the vaping industry, where there is innovation on the market, regulation is soon to follow. As expected, the European Union soon cracked down on e-cigs by limiting container capacity, limiting the size of refill packs, weakening potency, making child-proof packs compulsory, regularly investigating producers and by opening the door to a complete EU-wide ban on vaping.

In fact, vaping has proved to be an easy and considerably effective way to quit smoking. Furthermore, its health effects are not comparable to regular tobacco, and studies on the consumption of nicotine liquids by children have been disproven. A 2014 article in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety supports this:

Currently available evidence indicates that electronic cigarettes are by far a less harmful alternative to smoking and significant health benefits are expected in smokers who switch from tobacco to electronic cigarettes,” the authors claim. “There is no tobacco and no combustion involved in EC use; therefore, regular vapers may avoid several harmful toxic chemicals that are typically present in the smoke of tobacco cigarettes.

Plain Packaging Creates a Health Hazard

In Europe, "plain packaging" is the big idea that got its start in 2016: after the EU decided on a binding legislative directive to ban smoking in places like bars or night clubs (which has to be implemented by all member states by 2018), nanny-state advocates had to find new ways to virtue-signal their "fight against tobacco." What is not a directive yet has been implemented already by the United Kingdom and France, both pretending to be role models in anti-tobacco policy. Since January 2017, in France, and since May 2017, for the UK, all sales of tobacco have to be conducted in plain packs, meaning: a neutral font labeling the brand, big warning labels and shocking images of smoking-related health problems to deter smoking.

France and the UK, combined with the fact that those countries already have among the most expensive cigarettes due to VAT (sales tax) and special excise taxes, will be doing one particular group another huge favour: tobacco smugglers and forgers.

Australia, the first country to have introduced compulsory plain packaging for tobacco, has experience with this phenomenon. Between mid-2011 and mid-2013, Australia has seen a 60 percent increase in cigarette counterfeiting. The same effect is seen in the United Kingdom, where counterfeiting tobacco brands generates 45 million pounds (almost 55 million dollars) a year. These fake products bear enormous risks, as an inquiry for The Sun finds: "Independent lab analysis carried out for The Sun later revealed one pack of his [the dealer they got the product from] cigs contained insect droppings, eggs, skin, mites, 'unknown organic matter' and a stone."

Fifteen percent of German cigarettes are consumed but not bought in Germany, which indicates that a lot of tobacco is either legally or illegally (excessive quantities for customs) from countries like Luxembourg or the Czech Republic, where tobacco is cheaper, but also that product counterfeiting starts to become a considerable part of the market's volume.

As the War on Tobacco progresses, just like the War on Drugs, it will create a less transparent market with shady street dealers and dangerous merchandise on the black market.

The Infantilizing Nanny-State Does more Harm than Good

Nobody denies the health hazards that smoking tobacco creates, but government policies are neither creating an informed and responsible citizen, nor are they making market conditions any better. European lawmakers are infantilizing their electorate, infringing on their liberty to determine for themselves which risks they want to accept. Policymakers refuse to face the evidence that their infringements on tobacco sales have failed to reduce the consumption of cigarettes, and that continuous price increases will nourish the black market, inflicting more harmful products on the market.

The only solutions politicians should try is liberty: let individuals choose for themselves, and only then will they choose wisely.

Bill Wirtz is a law student at Université de Lorraine in Nancy, France and local coordinator for European Students for Liberty. See his blog.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source: Silvia Viñuales www.flickr.com/photos/insomnia90/

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