In defence of the tobacco display ban

This post was written by Owen on April 6, 2012
Posted Under: Civil Liberties,Health Care

Imagine having emphysema. For those who don’t know what that entails, emphysema is when the lining of your lungs is destroyed, meaning that it gradually becomes harder and harder to take in the oxygen your body needs. To start with, you notice that you get out of breath just a bit faster than you used to. Then, over time, it gets worse. And worse. After a while you find yourself fighting for breath even while sitting still. And then, after a few years – for most of which you’ll be constantly hooked up to oxygen tanks, barely able to speak, move or even feed yourself – you’ll most likely die, either from a simple lack of air or from heart failure as the low oxygen levels in your blood cause your veins and arteries to constrict and your blood pressure to skyrocket. There is no cure. Oh, and if you smoke regularly for many years, the odds of this happening to you get a lot shorter (12 to 13 times shorter, in fact – although technically that’s for COPD rather than just emphysema).

None of this is really news – most people who smoke are aware that their habit is likely to have some nasty health consequences as they get older – and plenty of them would probably argue that the reason they smoke is that the pleasure they get from doing so outweighs the negative health effects. But this ignores the rather glaring issue that tobacco is an addictive substance, so the enjoyment of smoking for most people lies in large part in the relief from your addictive craving (though I’m not denying that smoking is enjoyable in itself as well). And it’s for that very simple reason that I support the announcement today that displaying tobacco in shops is to be banned.

The libertarian argument often used in cases like this – that people should be free to do things which put their own health at risk if they want to – is a compelling one, especially if those activities bring in more to the Treasury than is spent by the government tackling any associated health issues, as is commonly claimed to be the case with smoking. But autonomy shouldn’t be the only consideration when you’re thinking about addictive behaviour, for the fairly obvious reason that people who are acting under the influence of an addiction aren’t acting completely autonomously, which probably goes a long way in explaining why people still smoke despite the fairly high likelihood of severe health problems in the future. If you’re addicted to tobacco and want to quit (as the government claims one in three smokers are) then not seeing cigarettes displayed every time you go to the shop could well make it that bit easier. It’s easy to mock the idea that displays in shops affect your retail habits, but you know what? The reason that shops put up displays – and have been doing so for decades, if not centuries – is because they make you more likely to buy things. Of course they’re not the only thing determining what you buy (and the government’s claim that they’re the main reason teenagers start smoking does admittedly seem pretty implausible) but it’s ridiculous to claim they have no effect at all. And when those things are products you’re addicted to, that’s doubly true.

In any case, getting rid of shop window displays doesn’t do anything to restrict the sale of tobacco, just the advertisement of it. This ban does next to nothing to limit the freedom of smokers to buy and consume what they want, and there’s a good chance it will help the large numbers of people struggling to overcome their addictions. I really don’t see a problem with it.

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Reader Comments


:-) There’s going to be some grumbling this; in many ways the most important issue in Britain today.

Written By JWA on April 6th, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

Blimey the smileys on this site look evil. Won’t be using them again.

Written By JWA on April 6th, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

I agree with your point of view.

Written By Owain on April 6th, 2012 @ 11:56 pm

If you think the tobacco display ban (or plain packaging) will have any significant impact on empyhsema rates I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. What it is more likely to do is to break the association that people build up on a daily basis between legitimate traders and tobacco. The result will be that people shop for tobacco either illegally from car boot sales and market stalls, or overseas, for less money and without bothering about ID for underage sales.

Written By Belinda on April 7th, 2012 @ 9:49 am

So…it’s ridiculous to suggest that a display ban will make people smoke less, but it will make people less likely to buy their tobacco legally. Or, alternatively: this won’t change consumer behaviour in a way that doesn’t fit your point of view, but it will change it in another, more convoluted way that does, even though you have no evidence that that’ll happen. Uh-huh.

What I find bizarre about the opposition to this ban is that no-one’s freedom to buy tobacco if they want to is infringed – the tobacco is still there, in the shops, and you can still go to the counter and ask for it just like you always have. All that’s changed is that it won’t be advertised, so people who are trying to keep their minds off tobacco because they want to give up will have one less obstacle to that. Even if it’s completely ineffective, the effect on your “freedom to choose” is negligible.

Written By Owen on April 8th, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

Owen: there is already a considerable black market that people use to buy tobacco. Every obstacle that government throws in the way of legitimate traders will excite more interest from people who get by on illegal sales, and gives them more opportunities.

Giving up smoking may be laudable but it really doesn’t require shops to be redesigned in order to help people do it. There is actually no evidence that it will work to dissuade young people either (and the onus is on supporters of this kind of thing to show that it will work). All that is shown is that kids have some brand awareness of tobacco, but that’s a far cry from suggesting that without the branding kids won’t be interested. There are no displays of illegal drugs but kids still want and get them anyway.

This is not to do with ‘my’ freedom to choose, by the way. I don’t smoke (not more than half a dozen roll ups a year anyway).

I don’t know why you refer to advertising. Advertising tobacco has been illegal for years. It is a regulated product that shops sell because there is a demand for it. While it may not be safe, its content is officially regulated. Illegal tobacco has found to be several factors more dangerous. I think it is a legitimate health concern that shops should be allowed to make customers aware that they carry this product.

Written By Belinda on April 9th, 2012 @ 3:49 pm
Joshua Willis

Well said! I agree with this and think only forbidden is not enough to reduce the usage of it rather than we should increase the awareness among the people. Recently UK has restricted the selling of tobacco based product openly. Hope other will follow this welcoming step. Thanks for sharing.

Written By Joshua Willis on April 10th, 2012 @ 7:43 am

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