By Michal Stoklosa, MA, Economist, International Tobacco Control Research, American Cancer Society
Tobacco use is set to claim one billion lives around the world this century, and many governments are actively taking steps to protect their citizens from the deadly effects of tobacco. One such step is the revised European Union Tobacco Products Directive, which the European Parliament will vote on next week.
The key provisions of the new directive require graphic health warnings on all smoking tobacco product packages and text warnings on all other products that contain nicotine, including electronic cigarettes. In addition, the directive bans the sale of menthol cigarettes.
It is no surprise that the proposed regulations have been strongly opposed by the tobacco lobby. In the past, tobacco companies countered policy proposals supporting the control of tobacco use by arguing that cigarettes were not harming the health of smokers. Few people would believe those arguments today. That is why tobacco lobbyists use economic arguments when trying to persuade policy makers and the public. Currently, the public debate about tobacco control laws is dominated by discussions about industry profits, government revenues, job creation, and cigarette smuggling.
In the case of the new tobacco products directive, the primary argument that the tobacco industry uses to oppose the regulation is that new tobacco control measures will cause a massive increase in cigarette smuggling. What the tobacco industry doesn’t say, however, is that the smuggling estimates used in their lobbying efforts are commissioned by the industry itself – an obvious and important conflict of interest.
As data on cigarette smuggling have become ever more crucial to the shaping of public health policy, Hana Ross and I, who are economists at the American Cancer Society’s Intramural Research department, decided to take a closer look at the industry’s studies. In 2011, Society researchers conducted two surveys using transparent and rigorous academic methods to estimate the scale of cigarette smuggling in Warsaw, Poland. The surveys were conducted at the same time as a study commissioned by the four largest tobacco companies in Europe. The Society surveys used two methods: collecting littered cigarette packs, a technique similar to the one used by the tobacco industry, as well as face-to-face interviews that asked smokers to show the researchers their cigarette packs.
The Society’s study results were definitive. While both academic methods produced identical estimates of the scale of cigarette smuggling, the tobacco industry commissioned estimate was higher by nearly half compared to what the Society researchers found (15% versus 23% of all cigarettes were smuggled). The reason for this difference is unknown because the tobacco industry refuses to disclose the details of their study’s methods.
The Society’s study calls into question the credibility of the tobacco industry estimates. It demonstrates that the industry’s economic arguments, just like their health claims in days past, cannot be trusted and policy makers should not rely on industry studies when shaping tobacco control policies, especially the new European Union Tobacco Product Directive.
The Society’s study gained a lot of attention in my native Poland. Findings were presented to the head of Customs and the vice-minister of Health, and many articles about the study appeared in the country’s most influential newspapers and Web portals, as well as in an interview on Polish national public radio.
The study was published last month in the prominent peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control and can be found here.