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Smoking and Tobacco: Have Regulators Slammed Into a Wall?

In spite of today’s knowledge of the harmful, often deadly, long-term effects of smoking cigarettes (and to a lesser but meaningful extent smoking pipes and cigars, and chewing  tobacco), smoking and the consumption of tobacco products in developed nations is a far cry from eradicated. For instance, while the per capita consumption of tobacco products in France has dropped by 60% over the last 40 years, even in that nation some authorities believe that “France is the [European] country that introduces the most restrictions on smokers, but does the least to enforce them.”

ReportLinker has compiled a significant amount of data showing that perhaps a big wall has been hit in the quest to more or less do away with people’s consumption of tobacco. One graph shows that total sales of tobacco products in the US keep getting bigger (after a steep drop-off between 2012 and 2013), even though many government entities there keep raising the price of cigarettes via imposing higher taxes. Paralleling this, we see that per capita daily cigarette consumption in the US has held steady in the roughly 14-16 range since 2006, and actual cigarette sales have closely followed total tobacco products sales.

Even in neighboring Canada, stats tell us that after a huge fall-off in cigarette sales between 2004 and 2007, they have since held roughly steady, with no further regulatory action making any significant difference.

One of the most smoking-hostile of all developed nations, Australia, has seen cigarette smoking level off in the last 20 years with smokers sucking on 13 to 16 cigs per day during that period. This is down somewhat from 1992’s 21 cigs per day, but given that Australia’s cigarettes are outrageously high in cost, one must wonder how far taxation and regulation can go.

Indeed, further evidence for limits of regulatory effectiveness is shown by the fact that Australian tobacco household expenditure  rose steadily and precipitously between 1990 and 2017, with no end to the rise in sight. (However, we do have to keep in mind that this figure includes all tobacco products, plus hookah, plus non-tobacco nicotine delivery products.)Meanwhile, some developed nations see marked increasing of tobacco products consumption. Portugal, for instance, has seen tobacco and tobacco-substitutes products consumption rise strongly since 2010, with forecasts saying there’s no end in sight through 2021. Total household expenditure on tobacco products is up significantly in the United Kingdom and even reached a peak of 27.8 billion euros in 2015.

Through 2016, the world’s biggest exporter of cigarettes and cigars was one of the world’s most developed economies: Germany, which brought in twice as much revenue from those products as its closest competitor-nation, Poland.

Even the ever-more-modernised Chinese are seeing a steady rise in tobacco products consumption.

What is the nature of this big wall that regulators seem to have run into in dissuading citizens from smoking or using tobacco? If we turn our attention back to Australia, we can find some clues in this so-called mystery.

In Australia, as mentioned above, cigarettes are outrageously expensive, and they are set to get even more expensive through harsh tobacco tax increases. But smokers continue to smoke, even when it’s to their financial as well as physical detriment.

Associate Professor Colin Mendelsohn, Chairman of Australia’s Tobacco Harm Reduction Association, says, “For those who cannot or will not quit, safer alternatives such as vaping, heat-not-burn, or snus should be made available—as they are in many other countries. The goal of these products is to reduce the harm to health from smoking, not necessarily to stop nicotine…There is no known measurable effects of being around [vaping], it is relatively harmless, there is no health reason to ban it. We are punishing smokers who just can’t quit and it’s hurting them financially as well as physically.”

We could logically conjecture that smokers are more tired of being punished by regulators than by tobacco. Even when they turn to non-cigarette tobacco products like chew or pipes, or non-tobacco nicotine delivery alternatives, altogether, they seem unable to catch a break , while being subjected to emotionally manipulative government advertising such as one Australian ad depicting a woman dying in her bed after a stroke allegedly caused by smoking.

Furthermore, it makes sense to say that tobacco lovers are highly suspicious of government and regulatory agency motivations in putting higher taxes and steeper regulations on tobacco products “If smoking is truly so terrible, why is it even legal, then?”

As to why nicotine delivery products like patches and chewing gum only make the smallest of dents in smoking, it’s likely that smokers derive pleasure from smoking (or chewing tobacco) that goes beyond getting their nicotine fix. Smoking appears to be a kind of ritual involving flavor, taste, touch, keeping the hand steadily occupied, socialising, and even substituting inhaling tobacco smoke for breathing.