It’s hard not to see the wall of cigarettes at the service counters in supermarkets in the Netherlands. When I first came to Amsterdam, I was pretty surprised at the ‘Duty Free’-styled labelling on the cigarettes: Plain black text on a white box. I hadn’t paid so much attention to these labels in the past, but that just seemed low effort. The next year when I came back from vacation, however, all the packages had the shock images that ended up covering most of the face and back of the packages. Apparently a new EU directive took effect in May 2016, and the stocks had been replaced by the end of summer…
We all know that cigarettes are bad; with public service announcements, TV spots, and warning labels, smokers and non-smokers alike are very well aware of the dangers of smoking. However, interestingly enough, the constant increase in tobacco prices with taxes and increasingly gruesome warning labels, the amount of smokers is not going down fast enough. Addictive goods such as cigarettes (which are sometimes called ‘bads’ because of their harmful nature) have inelastic demand, meaning that equal price changes yield smaller changes in the quantity consumed than they would for elastic goods like meat or yoghurt. Salt and mobile data plans are also inelastic, even though they are not necessarily addictive. So, no matter how much you are willing to increase prices to cut down the amount of smokers, its effect will be diminishing, and maybe even have adverse side-effects.
Accounting for 4% of all new cancer cases annually, alcohol is now argued to be dangerous even in moderation. Being an inelastic good, has not faced the same fate as cigarettes. The reason for that may be the history of alcohol, which has essentially become one with the history of mankind.
Alcoholic beverages has been around for much longer than tobacco, which only happened to pop up in Europe and enter mainstream consumption only in the 17th century. Archaeological evidence of fermented drinks goes far as 10,000 years ago, and since then alcohol has not lost its popularity or societal acceptance. In fact, that popularity has come to such levels that attempts to ban alcoholic drinks has lead to cases such as the American Prohibition era. Campaigns against alcohol lead by the Protestants at the time succeeded at bringing legislation to limit the use of alcohol to only private consumption. Unfortunately, although the ban succeeded in cutting down alcohol consumption, it enabled a criminal black market of alcoholic drinks to be formed, and also resulted in tax revenues taking a heavy blow. Thirteen years after the enactment of the initial restrictions, in 1933, a constitutional amendment repealed the Prohibition.
It’s not so easy to compare the Prohibition to tax hikes on cigarettes; but the high prices did indeed result in demand for cheaper cigarettes that could only be supplied by smugglers. In Europe, the European Anti-Fraud Office has determined tobacco smuggling to be a major source of revenue for organised crime, which puts the level of demand to scale. Adverse effects such as these are significant concerns for governments who attempt to stop smokers. The alternative, again, is warning labels and raising public awareness.
It is possible that such warnings can even be extended even further to junk food and soft drinks, as some politicians have already proposed. We know that certain foodstuffs that are easy to consume and contain a lot of carcinogens and calories are simply detrimental to your health too. Essentially, it seems that when the negative effects are more immediately apparent and direct, as is in the case of cigarettes, the ethical complexity is easier to navigate. Obesity and cirrhosis are both life-threatening outcomes of excessive consumption of food and alcohol, and yet we are not able to treat them at the class of cigarettes. Several studies show that obese people and smokers incur similar health care costs, but the ongoing trend towards orthorexia, the obsession with eating food that is deemed to be healthy, and unsustainable healthy-living routines also is dangerous to the well-being of people. Cigarettes are easy to attack because we know that they are definitively bad for you, but our perception of food and alcohol makes it difficult to find a solve-it-all way.
Although, I have to say, after finding out that eggs are linked to several kinds of cancer, I really wonder how far we can go with warnings on consumables. Maybe educating future generations better about balanced nutrition and mindful consumption is the best step to take next, as opposed to simplifying the information and calling things outright bad – I think I can take responsibility for the omelette I ate this morning.