- Posted by Dr. Marina Foltea
- On May 30, 2016
- food, health, intellectual property, marijuana, plain packaging, tobacco, WHO
It is my greatest pleasure to post the contribution of our very special guest Simon Lester who is sharing with us some thoughts on “World No Tobacco Day” and tobacco regulation. Simon is a notorious trade policy analyst with Cato Institute in Washington. His research focuses on WTO disputes, regional trade agreements, disguised protectionism and the history of international trade law.
According to the WHO, tomorrow is World No Tobacco Day. It’s an annual event, held on May 31. Perhaps you celebrated with a drink, wine, beer, or hard liquor? If you are in Colorado, maybe some edible marijuana, in form of a gummy bear perhaps? But obviously, no cigarettes as part of the celebration because, as noted, it is World No Tobacco Day.
The twin goals of this day are to highlight the risks associated with tobacco use and advocate for effective policies to reduce consumption.
The first goal seems like a good one. Science-based assessments of human health risks can be useful. Governments sometimes get these issues wrong, but in theory they can also get them right. Having the WHO put together guidance on the risk of using tobacco could be helpful. Governments, private companies and NGOs could all make use of this information.
On the other hand, we should think carefully about whether we need policies to reduce tobacco consumption. True, tobacco is bad for you. But many things are bad for you. Many foods are bad for you. Even some foods that are good for you are bad for you if you have too much of them. Many activities are bad for you. Even a lack of activity is bad for you.
So why have a whole day focusing on reducing consumption of one particular thing that is bad for you? And why this one particular thing?
One reason could be the effects of tobacco on others. Let me now confess something: I hate being around tobacco smoke. It’s awful. I lived in Europe for two years, and my worst memory of it was the ubiquitous stench of smoke in so many of the buildings over there. I am told that things have improved, but when I hear “Europe,” my Pavlovian response is still to recoil at the smell.
But this has nothing to do with tobacco in and of itself. It’s about smoking around others. And as noted, Europe has apparently gotten much better about this in recent years. You do not need to “reduce tobacco consumption” to achieve this; you just need to give people space that is free of the stench. For example, people should be able to work in an office that is free of smoke.
Another reason to reduce tobacco consumption might be the health problems it causes. Keep in mind, however, that these harms need to be balanced out with the pleasure smoking brings. Not to me, of course, but when I ask friends why they smoke, they tell me it gives them a nice buzz. They are aware of the risks (who isn’t?), and feel that the pleasure outweighs the harm. So why should anyone get in the way of the choice they have made?
And why should choices be restricted on this one issue? Arguably, the biggest health concern today relates to nutrition and food. Most people eat an unhealthy diet but are completely unaware of it. This is an area where spreading good information would be useful. In theory, governments could help with this (although in practice relying on private companies such as Whole Foods might be a safer bet).
This year’s World No Tobacco Day is a special one, focusing on “plain packaging“. Perhaps this tells us the real target of the WHO’s campaign: evil tobacco companies who use appealing packaging to lure naïve consumers into smoking, to get them addicted.
Now, for many of us, it is hard to imagine that advertising of any sort really works. We are constantly inundated with ads, of all sorts. Is any of it having an impact? The famous Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” commercial was quite a sensation in the 1980s. But did it actually lead anyone to try Wendy’s?
Here, we are talking about the product package itself, rather than advertising more broadly. Plain packaging advocates want laws mandating packages with drab colors, no logos, and images of tobacco-related diseases. Is that a reasonable regulation? It bumps against free speech rights and intellectual property protection in ways that make many people uncomfortable.
Regardless, plain packaging is certainly spreading, as more countries consider adopting it. But the impact on tobacco consumption, and overall fairness, is still being debated. Where we end up with tobacco products regulation in ten years is unclear. The WHO is currently battling to rid the world of tobacco. Cigarette producers are fighting back. In the midst of this battle, though, options for alternative drugs, both legal and illegal, are expanding. Clearly, the demand for these substances is there. While the desire to improve people’s lives is admirable, sometimes it runs up against human nature. Passing along information about health risks may be all that is really possible. In a world where edible marijuana gummy bears have become the latest innovation, the current obsession with Joe Camel may begin to seem antiquated.
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