Saturday, May 31, 2014

Tobacco's Tricks

Young people smoke on La Plaza del Chorro in La Candelaria.
 If this post looks familiar, don't blame me. Blame the authorities for a situation which doesn't change - or gets worse.

A cigarette 'display case', about a meter wide
in a La Candelaria Internet cafe/phoning place frequented
by young people. 
Today is world 'No-Tobacco Day', altho that's a real misnomer in Colombia.

Colombia has supposedly implemented World Health Organization anti-smoking policies. The failing, as usual, is enforcement.

The law prohibits the selling of cigarettes by the stick, known as loosies. But stores and street vendors continuing selling loosies openly and with no apparent fear of punishment. All the police need to do is hire some kid to try to buy loosies. Whereever he or she succeeds, take away the seller's cigarettes. On the second offense, close their business for a day. The loosie sellers are obvious, anyway, since they keep their cigarette boxes wide open.

Packs from contraband cigarettes. Notice that they
don't carry the Colombian health warnings.
Colombia's anti-tobacco law also prohibited tobacco advertising. But, 'where there's a law, there's a way around it,' goes the Colombian saying. The law apparently permits cigarette 'display cases.' Well, a 'display case' might be a meter wide and boast about 'Mentholated Mustangs with a capsule.'

A street vendor's box offering candies and cigarettes
by the stick. Why else would the boxes be opened?
To its credit, Colombia did require graphic warnings on cigarette boxes, and those have been enforced on smokes sold legally here. However, contraband cigarettes - which make half of those sold in some coastal regions - don't carry the required warnings. The flood of contraband smokes has received news coverage, particularly because many are manufactured by Tabacalero del Este, a Paraguayan company owned by Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes.

A young woman lights up a loosie on the Plaza del Chorro.
Notice the police in the background.
Most of the news coverage has concentrated on the huge loss of tax income because of these smuggled cigarettes - which, in addition, are allegedly used to launder drug money - but they also have big health impacts by making super-cheap smokes available, especially for kids. (For many years, multinationals Philip Morris and British American Tobacco similarly promoted tobacco smuggling into Colombia.)

In fact, according to El Tiempo, more than 27% of Colombian young people smoke, compared to only 17% of Colombian adults.

The results of all this aren't minor. El Tiempo reports that a every five seconds a Colombia dies from smoking - more than 26,000 people per year. This means a huge cost for the country's health care system and lots of lost economic productivity.

A vendor's cart on La Plaza del Chorro. The cigarette boxes have been opened, but reclosed, perhaps because there are cops nearby - or because it's no-tobacco day.
A man walks away from the cart smoking a just-purchased loosie cigarette.

Boys stand smoking outside the internet cafe with the Mustang ad. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


coolcoil said...

I'm a little surprised to see you taking a prohibitionist position. If people want something they enjoy, they will go to great lengths to get it. If you tax it too high, a black market will appear. If you crack down on vendors selling loosies (and the police have better things to do), then some enterprising high school kids will invest in whole packs and sell them to their friends in the schoolyard.

As for the kind of advertising you described, I don't think it does much to get people to start to smoke - it's more about brand switching. I am not even sure how much advertising drives new smoking, though I am sure there is some impact. You don't see public adds for cocaine or marijuana, but people seek it out every day. I believe a lot of it is cultural. In the US, smoking has gone down as it has become socially unacceptable and there are fewer places where people can smoke.

I think we both agree that drug legalization is the right course of action. But, you have to accept that you will see much of the same thing that you decry here. In order to combat it, you need social pressure and support for breaking the addiction. One place Colombia could start is by making nicotine patches and gum widely available at a reasonable price.

Miguel said...

Hi Coolcoil,

Who's talking 'prohibition'? I'm just saying that tobacco products should be relatively expensive and not easily accessible to kids.

You're right about high taxes and smuggling - but with reasonable controls, they can charge substantial taxes without smuggling going out of control. Lots of other countries do, after all.

As for loosies - sure, kids can sell them. But in that case, at least they're a bit harder to get, and probably more expensive.

Just because laws can be broken and evaded doesn't make them useless.

As for cigarette advertising, I think it's widely recognized that it encourages smoking, altho it's much less influential than peer pressure.