Does hiding cigarettes do any good?

Open display of cigarettes would be banned by Bloomberg’s proposal. Photo: Daniel Ansel Tingcungco, CC some rights reserved

Right on the heels of an attempt to ban sales of large sodas, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing a requirement that stores conceal cigarettes from plain view.

The big-soda ban was struck down just before it was to go into effect, by a State Supreme Court Judge who called it “arbitrary and capricious”. That ruling is being appealed.

One of the factual background lines tossed about in most of the U.S. coverage on the cigarette proposal goes like this: “The ban on displaying cigarettes follows similar laws in Iceland, Canada, England and Ireland”.

Hiding cigarettes from customer sight is something anti-smoking advocates tend to applaud. It’s endorsed by the World Health Organization. Iceland tried it first, back in 2001. But what sort of impact does it have, if any?

Canada’s ban was introduced on a province-by-province basis. Ontario passed a “hide ’em” measure in 2008. Since the countries mentioned have different forms of socialized medicine one can argue more justification exists for social policies which lower health care costs.

As it happens, I saw the retail display ban go into effect at my local village store, about four years ago. Big surprise: most store owners here resented the cost and bother of installing the panels that hide the smokes.

This is a bit dated, but here’s an information page from a convenience store interest group that discuses “direct economic hardship for C-Stores retailers” if such bans are enacted, because of the cost of changing displays and the possibility that even more customers will simply buy cigarettes illegally. (More about that notion in a moment.)

Retail display bans went ahead in Canada amid much grumbling but very little defiance. The local store I know best made lemonade out of those lemons by selling ad space for local realtors and such over the plain, boring panels.

I could only find one store owner in Nova Scotia who challenged the new rules. According to the Hant Journal, tobacco store owner Bob Gee was charged with failure to fully conceal products in his store and he:

…turned to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to refute the charge, claiming it violates his freedom of expression through advertising, and won the first stage of his constitutional challenge in 2010.

That case is still in court with a ruling anticipated in May of 2013.

I went looking for studies or evidence the retail conceal ban had any effect, but that’s been a bit challenging so far. Some say yes, hiding cigarettes makes a difference in decreasing smoking. Others say, no, it does not, or there is no causal evidence, just various factors that may over-lap.

This 2012 article from the Guardian discusses the ban in England and the debate about evidence in the case of Canada. The article quotes Prof David Hammond from the University of Waterloo in Ontario:

“I can tell you that smoking prevalence was lower among Canadian youth after display bans were implemented,” he said.

“In addition, the number of cigarettes per day reported by both youth and adult smokers was significantly lower after display bans were implemented. These differences remained significant after statistically adjusting for changes in cigarette price, which are strongly associated with smoking behaviour.”

I thought the best summary of anti-conceal arguments in a single article was made by Patrick Basham in the Daily Caller:

One problem with display bans is that they undermine two consumer beliefs that are key to a legal tobacco market: the belief that tobacco is a legal, regulated product and the belief that consuming tobacco from the illicit market is a crime. In jurisdictions where tobacco must be hidden under the counter, the distinction between legal and illegal retailers is blurred, so consumers are more likely to go to illegal, untaxed retailers for their tobacco needs.

The Canadian Convenience store site I mentioned above says that 22% of cigarettes consumed in Canada come from the smuggled/illegal supply chain. If those sales climb, that would result in more revenue lost to store owners and taxes lost to the government. Health advocates can say this is not about sales or tax revenue, this is about people’s lives. And yet the government is happily taking a cut of those sales by way of heavy taxes on this still-legal product.

Basham’s objectivity on this topic has been slammed by those who say he’s biased and has ties to the tobacco industry. But even if he has taken sides, some of the arguments he raises are ones that concealment supporters will have to rebut.

For the anti-smoking advocate, all smoking is a net negative. So discouraging the habit is pretty much a good thing, period.

But even looking for net effect doesn’t answer the whole question. After all, there is ample evidence that many legal products can harm health. For some, “can harm health” is enough justification to intervene. For a different crowd, “free choice” and “personal responsibility” matter more than empowering the state to be everyone’s nanny.

I don’t know. This tends to get personal in the end. On the one hand, I’ve never smoked, I drink very little soda and I am virtually a teetotaler. That makes some of these debates purely theoretical for me.

On the other hand, I eat an inordinate amount of chocolate and I suspect it’s only a matter of time before some do-gooder thinks society needs to do an intervention on my behalf in the sweets department. At a certain point, questions of personal liberty do come into this picture.

There’s a famous (and deadly serious) quote from Martin Niemöller about “when the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist…” You know how it ends: “When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”

It might feel good to get on the Bloomberg team when the Arugula Agents are locking up Big Gulps and Twinkies. But what if – someday – the suppression effort targets your favorite indulgence? (Don’t assume this is cut and dried. There is an adamant school of thought, for example, that says cow’s milk is unsuitable for human consumption.)

Sometimes I think if cigarettes really are that bad, just ban them already. Except we’ve all seen how many problems that causes. Prohibition is largely considered a failure.

Many say education is the answer. And it’s certainly important. Yet, what if 30% of the population pays attention and makes good choices but 70% chooses to eat mostly “junk” food, and pays a price in negative health? Much as I lean toward personal freedom, the costs of poor choices – freely made – might bankrupt us all.

Do you think proof something harms health is enough reason to regulate (or prohibit) legal items we eat, drink or smoke?

Or would you rather make those decisions yourself – regardless of possible harm or cost?

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60 Comments on “Does hiding cigarettes do any good?”

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  1. The Original Larry says:

    Will Doolittle,
    Don’t you have anything better up your sleeve than to infer that I support smoking? You know very well that I am talking about the balance between personal freedom and the liberal definition of the collective good. This is the second time recently that you’ve challenged me to support an unsupportable position in hopes of distracting attention from what I’m really talking about. The first time I said I thought you could do better; now, I’m not so sure.

  2. mervel says:

    Will has never been to New Orleans.

  3. mervel says:

    I don’t know, I also like Lucy go back and forth on this.

    We are a country that frankly takes a bunch of risks, how far do we want to go down the road of changing that? I like living in a country where I am free to make a whole bunch of bad choices if I want to. Freedom really does mean that adults really don’t get to control other adults.

    At the same time this is a huge health issue and it is addictive. Maybe let places do whatever the heck they want but all of these adult things, ciggs, whiskey, beer and soon to be pot; all can only be sold in what would be liquor stores today? It takes them out of the teens view and kind of isolates them without denying them. Kind of like the old porn shops, keep this stuff all in one place.

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The problem with smoking isn’t that it is a stupid and dangerous thing to do; the problem is that it doesn’t kill the smoker fast enough. Tobacco companies can milk smokers for profits for years before they quit or decades before they die.

    Modern humans are just too far removed from Darwinism, we should have more ways for people to kill themselves foolishly. But we feel like we have to make things “safe”. I say open things up for stupid behavior just so long as personal stupidity doesn’t affect other people. If you want to ride a motorcycle without a helmet and you get into an accident First Responders should be required to let you lay where you are. Find your own way to the hospital.
    Get lost in the woods in January without food and shelter? Tough luck, find your own way out. Surf a monster wave? Fish food if you wipe out.

    Where is the personal responsibility?

  5. Paul says:

    “Put the information out there, and let the people vote with their wallets, right?”

    The information is out there. They are safe. Get over it.

    “yet”. Get back to us when you have some scientifically proven information in that regard. Walker, I thought that maybe you were a “science kind of guy”? It surprises me that you buy into this propaganda.

    BTW your friend Benbrook should note in his propaganda that glyphosate, the herbicide he is talking about, is a far less toxic compound compared to the very toxic compounds that had to be used that it has replaced. But he is only interested in the tonnage not the specifics.

  6. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “…far less toxic compound compared to the very toxic compounds that had to be used that it has replaced.”

    Nobody HAS to use herbicide. Herbicide is used as a labor saver.

  7. Walker says:

    “It surprises me that you buy into this propaganda.”

    I’m not in favor of any propaganda, just freedom of information.

    It surprises me that you support hiding information from consumers. That’s all I’m talking about. Information. Not banning anything. Just labeling it. Let the consumer decide. What’s wrong with that?

  8. Walker says:

    “The information is out there.”

    No, Paul, I’m not talking about studies. Studies come and go, findings change.

    No, I’m talking about whether the products you buy a labeled to tell you whether they contain produce from GMOs. Period. End of story.

  9. Paul says:

    “No, Paul, I’m not talking about studies. Studies come and go, findings change.”

    Just like climate change deniers continue to ignore science and hope for that “yet” to come study that shows it isn’t really happening. This is the same thing that most anti-GMO people are doing.

    But like them I would never expect you to change your mind so yes, end of story. We have to just agree to disagree. Nothing new there.

  10. Walker says:

    Paul, you’re not addressing the real issue here: why not just label food products as to their contents?

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