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Dublin: 4 °C Friday 25 April, 2014

Aaron McKenna: Anti-tobacco policies are lining criminals’ pockets

It is not simple to change a societal behaviour – just ask the American prohibitionists – and plans to ban menthol and slim cigarettes will surrender money to criminal elements, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

WITH NEW EU regulations just passed and the budget due next week, smokers are getting hit quite a bit this October. Another euro on a pack of cigarettes is not beyond the realm of imagination, and the EUrocrats have decided to ban slim and menthol cigarettes on the basis that the sheeple can’t handle such coy marketing tricks.

A smokers habit is a dirty and – frankly – stupid one to engage in, but it is one that a quarter of the adult population indulges themselves with. Government policy towards smoking has been to try and stamp out the habit for good, which is a laudable goal.

Unfortunately that goal has morphed into a crusade pursued with a religious fervour that lends its champions the intellectual dogmatism of simpletons.

There is a mountain of evidence that points to the counter-productive results of the current campaign against smoking that envisions, as James Reilly has put it, nearly wiping out smoking as a habit in little over a decade from now. This goal is driving its advocates forward without any regard for the actual effectiveness of their efforts.

Old habits die hard

It is not simple to snap ones fingers and change a societal behaviour. Ask the American prohibitionists. Or our own Revenue Commissioners.

For all the top line statistics about smoking, the Revenue released a report in 2011 that points out that every 10 per cent increase to the price of a pack of cigarettes is resulting in a 36 per cent drop in sales. What a great victory against smoking, eh?

Except, of course, smoking has not come down by 36 per cent every time far more than a tenth is added to the price. The black market trade in cigarettes is costing the economy €1.5 billion a year, according to a report by Grant Thornton. Some €937 million of that is tax revenues lost to the state.

Revenue themselves have pointed out that there is a Laffer Curve at play here, with the rising price of cigarettes yielding a fall in revenues widely disproportionate to the actual fall in smoking.

We have a porous border and live in a European economy where cigarettes can be purchased for much cheaper than at home. Revenue figures released by the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan shows that there were 132 convictions for illegal tobacco sale and smuggling last year, with 95.6 million cigarettes and 5,276 kg of tobacco seized by customs officials.

That’s about 125 cigarettes for every smoker in the country in what the border officials actually managed to catch. A survey of binned cigarette packs in Cork indicated that a third of the cigarettes smoked in the city are not domestic. The actual figure nationwide is not known, but it is certainly significant and growing.

Drug dealers will benefit

The people smuggling these cigarettes are mostly the same criminal gangs that specialise in getting illicit substances into the country. It is perhaps odd to think of it that way, but drug dealers are making a nice profit off of supposedly legal goods. It is even odder to think that the real world Nidges of this world will soon be increasing their revenue by adding cigarettes with a minty taste to their list of high margin sales.

The hundreds of millions that is being thrown away by the state because of its punitive taxes on cigarettes is going into the pockets of criminals and smugglers rather than the very healthcare system they tell us will benefit from the war on smoking. Well, the number of smokers isn’t being reduced by this measure; but the monies available to doctors and nurses is.

I believe that we should aim to meet James Reilly’s goal of wiping out smoking over time. I am not so blinded by dogmatic belief however to ignore the realities of what is happening: Government is wiping out legal smoking in favour of criminality, with the upshot being slight reductions in the total number of smokers that is in no way proportionate.

Education is key

There is also the small matter of personal choice versus a nanny state to consider. People have a right to be stupid. There are many things that are blatantly bad for you, but it is not the role of a bureaucrat to force us from ceasing in the activities.

Government can educate people and it can take steps, like banning advertising and mandating health warnings on packaging, to dissuade people from smoking. It can ensure that those of us who do not smoke are not forced to be in a smokey environment, by pushing smokers outside. It can even force smoking companies to pay up for anti-smoking campaigns and introduce clever ideas in health centers, such as the NHS carbon monoxide level tests to help motivate people trying to quit. Health insurance for smokers needs to become more expensive, to reflect the costs associated with a habit that kills one in two of its adherents.

Governments can also fight the insidious tobacco lobby, which if it had its way would see us back in the good old days of Marlboro Man advertising.

It is the role of government, if it so desires, to seek to influence and win hearts and minds.

Personal choice

It is not, however, the role of government to tell you firmly and finally that you cannot, if you so desire, light up a slim cigarette or a menthol one or a cigarette stuffed with actual pig shite if you so desire.

Regardless of quaint old arguments for personal freedom from the yoke of government – which tends to spread in influence to other areas the more we give it ground – there is the simple fact that the state costs itself more in taxes and increased criminality than its policies save it by reducing smoking.

Zealots rarely listen to evidence, but another euro on a pack of cigarettes on Tuesday will be good news for criminal smugglers without really putting a dent into smoking as a habit.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: Menthol ban part of compromise EU deal on tobacco control
Read: Taoiseach calls for no change to tobacco health warnings
Read: Half of children who smoke had their first cigarette aged 13 or younger

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