Let’s Ban Flavored Tobacco and “The Lord of the Rings”!

Slovak media only very briefly caught a report about prepared tobacco directive in Brussels, which should bring a number of new regulations into the sector, such as banning flavoured tobacco or uniform dimensions and plain packaging of cigarettes. Another of many directives that officials in Rue de la Loi invent for us on a daily basis. Somewhat unexpectedly, resistance against this directive was raised not only by the tobacco industry, but also by the Slovak Ministry of Agriculture, as well as by their colleagues from the Czech Republic and Poland.

There are many reasons for resistance. For example, our public sector emphasizes the danger of an easier penetration of illegal cigarettes into the market. Moreover, uniformed packaging could result in a loss of many authentication features and also threaten branding. Another reason that is mentioned is the economic impact on European tobacco growers. They are, by the way, schizophrenically subsidized by the EU itself.

We can also argue against this policy on the basis of free market and free enterprise principles, which the EU still promotes as its core ideas. Why should an unelected official located somewhere thousands of kilometers away prohibit the tobacco manufacturer from adding even a garlic flavour if he wishes to do so, and why could not a consumer enjoy his or her favourite mint flavour?

The EU, of course, does offer us an answer – health. New regulations are supposed to reduce the attractiveness of cigarettes and prevent premature deaths from smoking-related diseases. Now, this seems to be a likely argument, yet as powerful as weapons of mass destruction if drawn in any discussion, doesn’t it? Who wants to challenge the protection of health?

The problem is, however, that this idea does not necessarily have to work as expected; it may even turn out quite differently. In his 1996 paper, Professor Massimo Motta came to the conclusion that bans on advertising generally do not decrease consumption, but rather lead to an increase in consumption. The markets he analyzed included the tobacco market. If the ad is focused on combating the competition rather than on acquiring new customers, it allows companies to gain a sort of monopoly position through differentiation from competitors. In such a situation, the company is able to raise its prices, and thus margins, while the total consumption declines. If the opportunity for a company to differ from its competitors is taken away, firms can remain competitive by reducing prices, which will often lead to an increase in the total consumption.

The EU already experienced an unintended negative consequence of the tobacco regulation. The sale of snus (tobacco consumed by placing it under the upper lip) is prohibited in all countries, except Sweden. The EU officials argue that the fewer the types of tobacco products, the better. The reality is that the incidence of oral cancer due to the use of snus is 40 times lower than that of lung cancer induced by smoking. Swedish recipients of nicotine are, as a result, significantly healthier than their counterparts in other member states. In fact, only 10 percent of the population in Sweden smokes. However, the ban from Brussels does not allow people addicted to nicotine to switch to a healthier (and cleaner) form of their vice. And, watch out – the new directive also considers stricter regulation of electronic cigarettes.

The directive is likely to worsen the life of the heavy smokers, but what about those who have not yet started smoking, particularly the European youth? Allow me to get personal. Smoking cigarettes has never tempted me and it has never occurred to me to start. But when I read “The Lord of the Rings” with two of my classmates, our admiration for Gandalf ended up in buying beautiful wooden tobacco pipes and their strenuous smoking. It lasted a few years, until we gradually stopped being enthralled by this activity. Therefore, in our case, the thing that would have been necessary to prevent us from smoking was to ban this particular literary work, and not a coloured paper package with a logo.

This might be an absurd case, but it illustrates well the nature of the problem. We do not live in the first half of the last century when smoking was even promoted by doctors themselves. Today, even a small child knows the risks of habitual smoking. Adults are free to decide about their health, and non-adults, on the other hand, need the support of families and others to make the right choices in life. That counts not only in questions of smoking. The fact that officials in Brussels decided once again to erase one of the little freedoms that we have as citizens on behalf of the greater good, this will in no way affect the decision of youngsters to smoke behind the school building with their friends.

(Translated by Juraj Šuchta)