In late November, US tobacco companies launched a series of new adverts. But these are not like the tobacco adverts we have seen before. For these advertisements were tobacco-industry funded, court-ordered “corrective” advertisements, a televised apology for the many years the industry has been claiming false health benefits and marketing its death sticks to children. But the war on smoking is far from being won: across the pond, the European Union is still figuring out how to deal with Big Tobacco’s bag of tricks.
This is a sign of just how far the US has come in getting to grips with tobacco. Smoking rates in the US now stand noticeably below those in Europe. The number of adults lighting up the US fell to 15% last year, down from 17% in 2014. And while the UK is tracking their lowered smoking rates, the EU more widely lags behind. In Greece, Spain, Romania, France, Austria and Poland, smoking rates were all at above 20%.
Of course, starkly different socio-cultural mores can explain the divergence. In America, smoking is not just widely stigmatized, it’s also slowly regulated out of the public space. Despite the debatable health benefits of bans on outdoor smoking, by 2011 parks in municipalities in all 50 states had smoking bans. And this has had a creeping effect on cultural norms. In the same year, a majority of Americans – 59% – said that they supported making smoking illegal in public spaces. And the drive to stub out cigarettes continues to gather pace. Drugstore CVS will no longer even deign to sell them. Once aspirational – marketed by celebrities, ‘high society’ women and young couples made lucky thanks to Lucky Strike –smoking is now the preserve of the poor in the US. According to government data, 29% of people living below the official poverty level smoke, versus 17.9% of people at or above the poverty level.
Compare and contrast with France, where smoking remains a favoured Gallic pastime and a key part of the country’s cultural fabric. The country has some of the highest smoking rates in Europe, with 32% of men and 26% of women lighting up every day. Unlike in the U.S., government attempts to crack down on the habit have had little or even negative results. Rolling out plain packaging in January appear to have only fuelled La Résistance to smoking cessation measures; with sales actually increasing compared to previous years.
But while culture plays a role, policy is arguably more influential. There is a clear difference, for example, in how American and European bureaucracies see the tobacco industry. In the US, it is a sinning industry that must be punished for its past and present sins. In the EU, however, it is seen more as an unpleasant but necessary partner. Something that policy-makers will work with – albeit perhaps while wafting the air around them in distaste – rather than against.
In Europe, resistance to the tobacco industry’s persistent attempts to dominate often seems token, at best. For example, the European Commission’s final draft proposal on implementing a ‘track and trace’ system to help combat smuggling has been widely criticized because of how heavily the tobacco industry is likely to be involved in designing and overseeing the system, something that one commentator said was akin to “putting a fox in charge of the hen house”.
And the hen house is an apt metaphor. Tobacco companies don’t just make the products that are spirited away by nasty smugglers; they have also been known to boost revenue streams and gather material for lobbying campaigns by orchestrating a little smuggling themselves. In 2014 British American Tobacco (BAT) was fined £650,000 by HM Revenue and Customs for flooding the market in Belgium, something that resulted in its brands being illicitly diverted back to the UK.
And of course, this ‘rise in smuggling’ enables tobacco companies to make an all-important point to governments. Cigarettes are already so expensive that people are having to buy them illegally, surely raising taxes to promote smoking cessation would just exacerbate the situation? Speaking about a key report on this topic by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the organisation’s chief executive, Deborah Arnott, said: “Our paper shows the appalling hypocrisy of the industry: they have been shouting about illicit trade, while remaining up to their necks in it themselves.”
Yet despite the clear indications that the tobacco industry is – putting it mildly – not to be trusted, Europe seems unperturbed by the fact it will be effectively asking the poacher to take care of its game, favouring as it does a ‘track and trace’ solution which includes the tobacco industry as a third party partner. The only hope to prevent that is for the European Parliament to veto the directive.
With the EU so enmeshed with the tobacco industry, it is difficult to imagine that it would have the will – or the influence – to force the tobacco industry to run US-style mea culpa adverts on the continent. And yet such adverts would be just as relevant in Europe – European lungs develop lesions at just the same rate as US lungs, after all. Their governments, however, have very different attitudes towards preventing this likelihood. And in this case, it is undoubtedly Europe that needs to up its game.