A Myth Stubbed Out

The European Union should scrap plans to ban tobacco advertising because
such a move, far from reducing smoking, would lead to an increase in the activity says Roger Bate

Copyright 1998 Financial Times
April 20, 1998

This week European Union health officials are expected to agree to ban tobacco advertising at some future date. The aim is to reduce smoking among young people and is based on the belief that children's preferences are significantly influenced by advertising.

However, aside from the immediate risks to jobs in tobacco marketing, publishing and advertising, and a significant loss of commercial free speech, there is considerable doubt that the primary aim of the ban would be achieved.

Professor Hugh High of the University of Cape Town has just reviewed the worldwide literature on the tobacco-advertising-consumption relationship for the Institute of Economic Affairs. According to his analysis, the average adult in countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that have advertising bans consumes 3.3 per cent more tobacco than do individuals in countries with regulated advertising and warning labels. More specifically, Italy, Portugal, France and Norway have had advertising bans for many years, during which time smoking levels have increased, particularly among young women.

Yet those countries - such as the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands - that have allowed advertising in recent decades have seen a faster decline in smoking over the same period than OECD countries with stricter rules. The alleged positive relationship between advertising and total tobacco consumption may be a myth.

Conventional wisdom is that advertisers can easily create demand for products among a naive public. It is consequently assumed that an advertising ban would reduce demand for the products concerned, thereby protecting consumers from wanting things that are bad for them. But evidence suggests that consumers tend not to believe exactly what advertising says - rather, they combine advertising hyperbole with other personal information to reach purchasing decisions.

According to Martin Duffy of Manchester University, this may explain why advertising restrictions on tobacco can serve to increase, rather than decrease, tobacco consumption since the health warnings on tobacco products are no longer widely disseminated. Consumers in countries with bans are not reminded regularly that smoking is dangerous.

Prof High demonstrates that for mature markets, such as with toothpaste and tobacco, each company advertises its brands in the belief (almost certainly true) that to cease advertising is to concede the market to competitors. Consumers are loyal to brands but can be persuaded to change, especially if product differentiation is possible. After all, do you buy more toothpaste when you see oral hygiene advertisements, or perhaps just switch to a brand with alleged new protection? Prof High says mature market advertising bans "do not reduce total demand, only the likelihood for changes in brand market shares".

For example, the dangers of tobacco were first widely disseminated in the 1960s and many people subsequently stopped smoking. But others, who did not want to quit, switched to "safer" cigarettes, lower in tar and with filter tips, when they were first advertised as less bad than their competitors. A ban today would reduce the likelihood of new, perhaps more socially acceptable products, reaching the market.

But what about the EU health ministers' desire to help the young and impressionable?

The Joe Camel cartoon character used in R.J. Reynold's tobacco advertisements (now discontinued) are alleged by many anti-tobacco groups to have encouraged young people to start smoking in the US. A paper in the Journal of the American Medica1 Association reported that Joe Camel was as familiar to six year olds as Mickey Mouse. Among high school students 98 per cent recognised the character, compared with 67 per cent of adults.

The UK government report on Camel, however, said that "the evidence on consumption is not sufficient to establish that the campaign does actually increase smok ing". This conclusion, which is supported by many independent studies in Europe, seems to show that even young children know that tobacco is bad for them.

Today's children are bombarded by advertising and they become astute at a very young age at discerning what is and what is not a commercial. Peer group pressure among rebellious teenagers and family habits are far more important in determining whether someone will start smoking, concludes Prof High.

Most politicians know that an advertising ban will not cause tobacco consumption to decline any faster than it already is, but to oppose such a ban is to be labelled pro-tobacco - a poisoned chalice for any politician. In 1996, the Belgian health minister Mr Colla said in a parliamentary debate: "There actually does not exist any scientific proof linking advertising and consumption of tobacco." Nevertheless, he could not be seen to back tobacco and had to support the position of a fellow Flemish socialist party member who promoted a bill last year to ban tobacco advertising in Belgium, thereby gaining popular support.

Like politicians, most health professionals cannot acknowledge that tobacco adverts do not induce smoking because if they did they would have to acknowledge that bans do not work and, even worse, that their own anti-tobacco propaganda is probably doomed to fail. Propaganda, as its creator in modern times Joseph Goebbels admitted, is about success not about truth.

Perhaps advertising bans provide success for politicians. After all, bans make them look good by acting to promote public health, but they do not endanger the tobacco taxes that treasuries the world over rely upon.

Take the UK for example. The £10bn raised annually from tobacco taxes is equivalent to the entire budgets of the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Agriculture. Surely governments are too wedded to this funding to jeopardise it if advertising bans really damaged cigarette sales? The answer, of course, is that bans do not work: all they do is retard the movement towards "healthier" products, such as lower tar and lower nicotine cigarettes.

If health ministers really want to do something about smoking then they should encourage the removal of the £700m EU subsidy for tobacco growing and stop this counter-productive advertising ban. Making smoking taboo will attract even more of the young to try this forbidden fruit.

The author is an economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Tobacco and Advertising by Hugh High is published by the IEA next month.

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