WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) works with its signatory countries to reduce the ‘devastating health and economic impacts of tobacco.’ Its main policy tools include laws regarding, but not limited to, taxation, packaging, manufacturing and advertising of tobacco products. It is due to FCTC’s norms that India has 85% plain packaging of cigarette packs, and taxation on cigarettes now stands at 60% of the price.
At the COP6 in Moscow, WHO’s press release declared “the need for regulations along the lines of policies concerning other tobacco products, including banning or restricting promotion, advertising and sponsorship of ENDS.” At the COP7 conference that begins today, it will decide the fate of e-cigarettes.
I am convinced that this policy is not only extremely paternalistic, it is counterproductive to FCTC’s goal of improving public health.
Taxes invite black markets
High taxes also increase the incentive for producing illegal cigarettes completely outside the tax regime. In this case, cigarettes are produced in illegal, unregulated factories and sold on the black market.
Black market in India
Black markets don’t need complete prohibition to take hold. They emerge as soon as regulations artifically increase prices. A FICCI study confirms that high taxes and plain packaging have led to an over 90 per cent increase in the consumption of smuggled cigarettes in the last decade. As a result, the overall market for illegal cigarettes in India is now estimated at 22.8 per cent of the cigarette industry. The share of legally manufactured cigarettes in total tobacco consumption in India has declined from 21% in 1981-82 to 12%, according to the industry body Tobacco Institute of India (TII). During the same period, overall tobacco consumption increased by 42%. According to Euromonitor International, a renowned global research organisation, India is now the 4th largest illegal cigarette market in the world.
Taxes are ineffective, anyway
Taxation has been ineffective in deterring Indian people from smoking less. The policy of high-taxation has been a failure in at least a couple of ways.
First, despite a 1606% (for the shortest non-filter cigarettes) and 198% (for the shortest filter cigarettes) rise in taxes over 19 years, the number of cigarette smokers has risen. Cigarette smokers in India increased from 25 million to 46.4 million over 14 years (1996 to 2010), and per capita annual consumption of cigarettes only declined marginally, from 101 to 96 cigarettes over the same period.
Second, many smokers respond to cigarette taxes in dangerous ways. A 5 year long study with 11,966 smokers suggested that smokers switch to cigarettes that are higher in tar and nicotine. This allows them to get more tar and nicotine per cigarette smoked. The study concludes that “Cigarette excise taxes appear to have no effect on total tar consumption.” But because high-tar cigarettes pose a greater risk, this response undermines the goal of improving public health.
Lowering taxes can drive out illicit trade
Rather than reducing cigarette consumption, high taxes shift some consumption from the legal to the black market—that is, to smuggled and/or illegally produced cigarettes. The corollary of this is that tax cuts could drive out illicit trade without increasing overall cigarette consumption.
E-cigarettes are a benign alternative
Electronic cigarettes (also called e-cigarettes) are battery-operated devices designed to deliver nicotine with flavorings and other chemicals to users in vapor instead of smoke. Vaping an e-cigerette doesn’t involve inhaling tar that is produced from a combustible cigarette. This makes vaping significantly safer than cigarettes, 95% safer according to Public Health, England.
Media reports have fed the idea that e-cigs pose all sorts of dangers. In January 2015 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that showed toxic levels of formaldehyde could be produced by a high-powered vaporizer. The report also noted that no one would ever heat e-liquid to that temperature. Likewise, when a Harvard study showed the presence of the chemical diacetyl in 75% of e-liquids, there were headlines about e-cigs causing irreversible scarring of the lungs, despite the fact that diacetyl is present in extremely low doses. The toxic chemical is hundreds of times more plentiful in traditional cigarettes.
The WHO should back-track on vaping
WHO’s decision to regulate e-cigarettes in a similar fashion as combustible cigarettes is counterproductive to its mission of harm reduction. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that taxing cigarettes has proved ineffective in lowering the smoking rates. Vaping, however, offers a safer alternative to people who want to quit.
No one is suggesting that e-cigs are completely safe. They vaporize a liquid to deliver nicotine, which can interfere with brain development in young people, harm a developing fetus and pose risks to people with cardiovascular disease. E-cig vapour does contains a dozen or so of the carcinogens found in cigarette smoke, but at very low levels.
Bringing e-cigarettes under similar laws as combustible cigarettes will keep people from quitting, which can potentially cut millions of lives shorter.
To learn more about how the Nanny State is reducing our choices and making us worse off in India, check out NannyState.in