While several provisions in Costa Rica’s proposed newanti-tobacco law can be debated, there should be no debate over the folly of prohibiting the sale of cigarettes individually.
All the evidence shows that for most people quitting smoking a long-term process, fraught with many relapses. Every former smoker also knows how the relapses start. Wanting to “cheat” and have just one or two, former smokers buy a pack. The pack then remains in their possession, which encourages them to continue smoking until they finish it. By then, though, the habit has returned.
Experience also shows that there are very few true non-smokers. Many so-called non-smokers, including some rabidly opposed to tobacco, smoke occasionally, usually at a bar or a party. Neither is there any evidence that occasional smoking harms anyone’s health. All the evidence of the ill-effects of smoking is drawn from the pack- or half-pack-a-day long-term smokers (or those who spend hours everyday in smoke-filled rooms). Yet the proposed law will coax some of these occasional smokers into a life-threatening addiction by compelling them to buy cigarettes by the pack.
It is far better to allow relapsing former smokers and occasional smokers to buy cigarettes individually. Indeed, Costa Rica’s consumers show by their behavior that they are willing to pay a premium far in excess of the proposed tax for this privilege. The markup on cigarettes sold individually is in the neighborhood of 250 percent. (Typically cigarettes sold for 100 colons each can be purchased in a pack of 20 for 800 colons.) Yet the proposed law assumes that adding a mere 25 percent tax to cigarettes only sold by the addicting pack will discourage smoking.
Far too much attention has been focused on the physiology of nicotine addiction, and far too little on the insidious marketing practices that create and maintain that addiction. Marketing cigarettes in packages of 20 was intended to foster addiction, and packages of 10 will do the same thing. Instead of recognizing this fact and discouraging it with smart legislation, Costa Rica’s proposed law will encourage it.
Look at it this way: Would it make sense for a law intended to reduce alcoholism to forbid the sale of individual drinks and force consumers to buy only 12-packs beer or liters of booze instead?
Opinions differ about anti-smoking legislation from the standpoint of balancing individual liberties with public health concerns. It would seem that some other prohibitions of the proposed anti-smoking law, like the banning of smoking at open-air bus stops or even in bars with doors wide open and a strong cross breeze, go overboard. (No one needs to worry about second-hand smoke at a bus stop, since the exhaust fumes from the buses and cars will kill you first.) These are unnecessary to protect the public and merely legislate taste preferences.
Nevertheless, reasonable legislation intended to reduce the ill-effects of smoking and to preserve the rights of non-smokers should be welcomed. The problem is that the proposed legislation won’t achieve this, but will achieve exactly the opposite. By banning the single sale of cigarettes, Costa Rica will invite greater nicotine addiction, and all the problems that come with that.