Choking Tobacco Sales

Legal sales of marijuana are happening in Colorado and Washington State, and being talked about in Canada. Those who favour full legalization of marijuana sometimes point to tobacco and say that marijuana is less harmful, so it should be legalized.

That is rather missing the point. The long term goal of public policy should be to phase out the legal distribution of tobacco products.

There are only one third as many tobacco smokers in Canada today as there were in 1965. That is still too many.

Half of Canadians smoked in 1965 but the level is down to 17%. Nova Scotia’s numbers are similar. Unfortunately the numbers have stopped going down.

Tobacco usage continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in Canada; more than overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, or high blood pressure. More than 37,000 Canadians will die prematurely this year due to tobacco use. Each day, 100 Canadians die of a smoking-related illness.

Tobacco companies have earned a special place in the annals of corporate infamy. For years they concealed evidence about the harmful effects of smoking. They secretly boosted the amount of nicotine in cigarettes in order to increase their addictiveness. The 1999 film “The Insider” does a great job of telling the story.

It was a wise public policy choice to gradually constrain the sale and use of tobacco. You can’t suddenly abolish an activity in which half the population participates.

Graphic warnings have been inserted on packaging. Advertising is prohibited. Retailers are not allowed to display product. Smoking is banned in public places. Effective public education programs have been implemented. Taxes have been steeply increased—they still generate over $200 million of annual revenue for the provincial government.

But the rate of tobacco consumption is no longer declining. Tobacco companies are experimenting with new products such as flavoured cigarillos and electronic cigarettes. It is time for further measures. The unequivocal goal should be to gradually eliminate tobacco consumption.

  1. Restrict Distribution: No new outlets for the distribution of tobacco products should be allowed. Gradually reduce the number of outlets. By 2018 sales should only be available through Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation stores.
  2. Eliminate Branding: Stage a competition in which graphic designers are invited to come up with the most uninviting possible packaging. Require all manufacturers to use the winning design with a number in one corner being the only identifying feature. Forbid the introduction of new products.
  3. Set an End Date: Make it illegal to sell or provide tobacco products to anyone born after the year 2000.

None of these measures will be completely effective but each will apply relentless downward pressure on the number of smokers.

The goal is not to vilify smokers. Most of them report a desire to quit and almost half have tried to do so in the past year. It is not easy. It took me many tries before I finally succeeded 37 years ago. Efforts to quit should be supported.

Getting rid of legal tobacco distribution and consumption is thus a long and difficult process. We should be very cautious about putting ourselves in the same position with marijuana.

A good case can be made for decriminalizing recreational marijuana, making usage a lightly enforced offense not more serious than a speeding ticket. But legalizing distribution and possession of small quantities, as is happening in Colorado and Washington, should be approached with considerable caution:

  1. Marijuana may be safer than cigarettes but it is not clear that it is harmless. A number of acute and chronic health risks have been identified although the evidence is by no means as conclusive as that for tobacco.
  2. So far the distribution is in small corner shops. But that may change as more states legalize. Television, radio, and newspaper advertising by distributors is permitted in Colorado. Perhaps the tobacco companies will see it as a logical diversification, and bring their questionable moral compass to bear on efforts to sell pot. One can imagine Joe Camel with a bong on a billboard near a school.
  3. With the passage of time there may be pressure to extend the rules to larger quantities or additional drugs. If pot and hash why not cocaine and ecstasy?

The proponents of legalization are not without arguments in their favour. It might produce useful tax revenue. Perhaps it would take revenue away from criminal gangs. It might reduce the risk of poisonous substitutes being marketed as the real thing. Permitted merchants would be more reluctant to sell to minors.

The most prominent advocate of legalization is Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. It is not yet evident from his remarks that he has grappled with the risks that would accompany his proposal.

If the experience in the US and elsewhere shows legalization has unacceptable outcomes we will be much better off having never crossed that bridge. As we have seen with tobacco these are decisions that are very difficult to reverse.

If the American experience is benign, legalization will be easy to implement, and less divisive than it would be today.

So let’s decriminalize soon, but take a very long look before deciding to legalize.

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