Australia finds an effective smoking deterrent

Legislation against activities of compulsion are rarely successful. Even if a population is predisposed to abide by the law, they may be physiologically wired to follow the compulsion. Addiction and desires are driven by powerful evolutionary forces. People tend to find a way around statutory and cultural restrictions.

Consider the governments, churches, civic groups, schools and parents that have sought to restrict sex throughout human history—for example, among individuals who are unmarried, gay, underage, dissimilar heritage, or simply in a school, church or prison. Do laws and even physical barriers stop people from having sex?

Swollen bellies amongst high school students suggests that rules can be broken. And pregnancy represents the tip of an iceberg. It results from a fraction of sexual encounters and many are terminated before they are evident, because of the law, the parents, or the shame of discovery.

It’s easier to prevent cats from reproducing. Simply neuter them if you can catch them before they produce litters. But governments generally don’t sterilize their population. That makes it difficult to get reelected, at least in a democracy.

Smoking may not be as universally enjoyable as sex, but for smokers, it is also a powerful compulsion. How can a society ban a desirable activity that the majority agrees is harmful to health and to the welfare of the society at large? Here, then, is a Wild Duck guide to curtailing the use of cigarettes…

1.  Ban It
If a government bans a vice (like smoking), it simply drives it underground. Just ask any American who was alive during Prohibition. Alcohol was everywhere, but profits accrued to the Mob instead of to the producers and government.

2.  Tax It
Does a selective tax discourage consumption or a particular activity? It certainly seems like it should work. These are called vice taxes.

But what seems valid often fails supply-and-demand realities. If a government taxes something that is cheap to produce, people will find a way to evade the tax. Either the consumer will buy it out of the jurisdiction, import it, or the manufacturer will produce unreported products. The vast and free-flowing nature of the Internet makes all of these things difficult to police and even more likely than they were before.

3.  Scare the Hell Out of Consumers
The Australian courts have just approved of a measure against which tobacco companies fought with all the gusto they could muster. Beginning late this year, cigarette packages will be completely covered by a horrid photo that graphically depicts the consequences of smoking. It’s not just a written warning. It gets you right into a rotting jaw, cancer of the eye ball, or a suffocating child. The photo and a dire warning will cover the front and display edge of the package. The rest of the box will be drab olive green regardless of the brand. Other illustrations, cartoons or images are prohibited…not even a brand logo!

Will people find a way around it? With bans and taxes, there is a strong incentive to circumvent rules. But I don’t think that consumers will go out of their way to purchase cigarettes from unknown sources to avoid a disturbing package. People still want their smokes. With the Australian scheme, people can still smoke–the brand they crave, from a trusted source, and without onerous taxation.

But the Australian parliament realizes that smokers cannot circumvent death and disease. That burden is not foisted upon you by government. It’s a just a fact, plain and simple. Their new rules help ensure that the smokers aren’t fooling themselves. Cancer and death will no longer be out-of-site, out-of-mind.

If the goal is to reduce smoking, this last idea is likely to achieve the goal. Most of us want to live. In the United States and Europe, warnings are a bit abstract and hypothetical. Australia’s packaging rules take the danger of smoking and shift them from a theory to stark, in-your-face reality.

Australian legislators are clearly Wild Ducks at heart. They understand compulsion. For some smokers, the desire to avoid a graphically depicted, painful experience may exceed the desire to get a quick nicotine high.