Friday 31 October 2014

Christopher Snowden: Why our efforts to cut smoking have been a failure

Published 23/10/2013 | 05:00

In the eyes of the public health community, Ireland is the poster boy for tobacco control.

It has the highest cigarette prices in the EU, and some of the strictest prohibitions. Ireland was the first country in the world to introduce a workplace smoking ban. It has banned the sale of 10 packs of cigarettes, introduced a display ban and vending restrictions, and graphic health warnings on packs.

The European tobacco control scale has consistently ranked Ireland second-best in Europe. This scale awards points for criteria including high tobacco prices, extensiveness of smoking bans and advertising bans, and the size of health warning labels. Only the UK scores higher than Ireland, because it introduced graphic health warnings earlier and spends more annually on tobacco control. Unfortunately, the tobacco control scale is more concerned with prohibitionist policies than it is with outcomes. Ireland's high ranking belies the fact that there has been no significant reduction in smoker numbers in recent years.

According to Eurobarometer, the smoking rate in Ireland has remained constant at 29pc – the third highest rate in Europe – over the past eight years.

Ireland also has the highest female smoking population in the OECD – 27pc of Irish women smoke, far above the average of 16.7pc.

Even worse, research by the OECD has shown that over the past 20 years the number of smokers in Ireland has fallen by just 3pc. The OECD average for smoking cessation over the same period is 30pc, meaning that Ireland has performed 10 times worse than average. Of the 26 countries studied by the OECD, only Russia performed worse.

High excise duties have been a central plank of Ireland's tobacco control policy. In just a few years, the total price of a pack of cigarettes increased by 90pc, from €4.88 to €9.30.

Excise is an important source of revenue for the Irish exchequer, with tobacco taxes bringing in approximately €1.4bn annually. When Budget time comes around, as it did last week, an excise increase on the 'old reliables' is never a surprise.

But not only has the excise rate passed the point of diminishing returns, annual excise increases now actually lead to a fall in revenue. A 10c increase in Budget 2013 was supposed to bring in an additional €25m, but eight months into the year excise returns were actually €36m down. A similar miss the previous year means missed excise targets are creating a massive black hole in Ireland's exchequer figures.

While high excise and strict prohibitions have clearly not reduced smoking rates, they have created Western Europe's biggest black market. A recent KPMG report has shown that one billion counterfeit and contraband cigarettes were smoked in Ireland last year. The illicit cigarette trade costs the Irish State an estimated €586m per annum.

The PSNI recently warned consumers off buying illegal cigarettes as it helps fund organised crime. According to Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris: "Every time you buy dodgy cigarettes, cheap fuel or counterfeit goods, you are providing funds for organised crime. You are helping line the pockets of those involved in drugs, human trafficking and terrorism. By saying no you can help us keep everyone safe." Not only are Ireland's tobacco control measures failing to reduce smoking rates, they are clearly also having serious negative external consequences.

According to children's charity Barnado's, "children start smoking in Ireland at a younger age than any other country in Europe". After years of bans and price hikes, this should be seen as a clear admission of failure.

Irish tobacco control has overwhelmingly and demonstrably failed – there has been no significant reduction in the number of smokers, and cessation rates are 10 times worse than the OECD average.

Now, rather than acknowledging failure and trying a new approach, the Government is doubling down on the failed neo-prohibitionist approach. Health Minister James Reilly has said he wants to make Ireland tobacco-free by 2025, and has announced plans to introduce plain packaging for tobacco products.

Ireland's crusade against the tobacco giants has seen them lose focus on what really matters – effective harm reduction and lowering smoking rates.

If the objectives of tobacco control were to demonise and irritate smokers and 'wage war' on the tobacco industry, then Ireland could certainly claim some small victory. But when it comes to stopping people smoking, Ireland's tobacco control policies couldn't be any less successful if they were set by the tobacco industry itself.

Christopher Snowdon is director of lifestyle cconomics with leading London-based think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). He will be speaking at an IEA-hosted panel debate at 7pm this evening in the Royal College of Physicians, Dublin entitled 'How to Really Stop People Smoking'.

Irish Independent

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