Saturday, July 23, 2011

An End to Loosies?

Opened cigarette boxes offer 'loosies' along Ave. Jimenez.
Update: As of November, nothing's changed in the sale of loose cigarettes. A street vendor, after selling a pair of loosies to a young couple, says 'Well, we can't die of hunger,' and points out that the vendor earns much more by selling cigarettes by the stick than by the box. She pointed out that neighboring liquor stores also sold alcohol illegally to minors. When the police come by, they hide the open boxes, she said. The only way to end this practice is with sting operations.

On Thursday, a law took effect prohibiting all cigarette advertising and, more controversally, the sale of 'loosies' or single cigarettes.

Most of the public commentary I've heard about the 'loosies' prohibition has been negative: it will hurt the incomes of the informal vendors and small shopkeepers who sell single cigarettes; by making full packs the only option, smokers will smoke nor, not less; the law is unenforceable.

Building a future market: tobacco company contractors
interview young people about their smoking habits
in La Candelaria, a university neighborhood.
The first two criticisms miss the point. Yes, an end to loose cigarette sales will cut vendors' incomes. But, if vendors' incomes were the top priority, then we should give them license to sell heroin, cocaine and pornography to anybody who wants them, as well. On the second, I doubt whether, on balance, many people would smoke more without loosies, but this law's goal is not to affect adult smokers, who have a right to continue their habit. Access to cheap, single cigarettes, which can be bought on the street starting at about 150 pesos, or a dime, gets lots of kids started smoking and starts them on a lifelong addiction. If they had to shell out for a whole pack, they might buy a candy instead - or even save their coins.

A lifelong market? young person smokes on La Plaza del Chorro. 
On the other hand, critics are right that this law will likely not be enforced, altho it could be. A local shopkeeper tells me that cigarettes sell for about one-third more when vended singly than when sold by the pack. That gives vendors a big economic incentive to open cigarette packs and sell the sticks one by one. 

Expect shopkeepers to keep their opened packs under the counter. If police or health authorities question them, they'll just explain that those ten opened packs are the ones they are smoking themselves.
In a neighborhood shop. This space
had contained a cigarette ad. 

The only way to catch single-stick sellers would be with sting operations: employing people to try to buy single cigarettes. But Colombian police don't use such strategies.

The tobacco companies have removed lots of the cigarette advertising which has papered this city. But they haven't given up on their battle on young Colombians' hearts and lungs. This afternoon, I watched young people interviewing other young people about their smoking and cigarette buying habits. They appear to focus only on young men and women - after all, that's tobacco's future market.

A Marlboro sign on a city bus. 
The warning says 'Smoking causes abortion.' If abortion is mostly prohibited, then why is smoking permitted?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Marcela said...

Interesting, I hadn't heard of this. It's a strange law to enforce, and comes as a surprise to me. I always quite liked the freedom of just being able to purchase a single cigarette, even though I don't smoke myself I thought it was a nice thing. If it cuts back smoking in general I guess it's good, but I can see the negative points too.


Miguel said...

I don't know what the law's short-term impact on smoking would be IF IT WERE ENFORCED. The goal is certainly long-term, to prevent kids from starting to smoke. But all of this depends on enforcement, which is doubtful.

It's interesting how Colombia is moving forward with anti-smoking laws, but doing almost nothing about other sources of air pollution. Perhaps this shows that the World Health Org's pressure makes a difference.

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