You smoke? Hush!.. Unmasking the myths and misconceptions of prohibition on tobacco advertising

On May 1, 2000, Lithuania introduced a ban on tobacco advertising. The Law on Tobacco Control states that advertising, including hidden advertising, of tobacco products is prohibited in Lithuania. The law defines cigarette advertising so vaguely that any mention of a tobacco product may be deemed illegal. It not only means that, as of now, we will no longer see commercials on Lithuanian television. Cafes and bars will have to do away with everything that has any kind of logo or sign of tobacco products – umbrellas, ashtrays, napkins, etc. It is not clear how bureaucrats will treat foreign television programs or journals with tobacco commercials or ads that will be shown or sold in Lithuania. And what about sports or concert broadcasts that will display the names of cigarettes and tobacco companies? It is not clear how films will be shot or plays put on in which characters smoke. It is not clear how cigarettes will be sold if mentioning the names of their producers is prohibited.
What is this ban on tobacco advertising aimed at? What are its motives and what effect it will produce?
It is claimed that cigarette advertising has been restricted in order to reduce consumption of this addictive product and, by doing so, to protect people’s health. The goal, it seems, is very noble. But is it logical and, more importantly, can it be achieved through a ban on advertising? The ideologists of such prohibition act on the assumption that people do not obey their own mind but are helpless victims of advertising. Of course, this argument has never been proved, and the existing evidence on the effects of advertising on nicotine addiction is unreliable. After all, we do not rush into buying a medicine that we have seen on TV if we do not suffer from the illness it is supposed to cure. We do not buy advertised candies if we are allergic to them. We do not buy a pet just because we have caught sight of a pet food ad. We do not take a taxi just because we have set our eyes on a commercial displaying the firm’s name. Finally, remember the days when there was no tobacco advertising at all, but people smoked anyway? Well, they smoked no less than today – and bad cigarettes to boot.
Cigarette advertising may affect consumption of one or another brand of cigarettes, but not tobacco as a whole. Advertising affects choice, not habits. The formation of habits is influenced to a much greater degree by traditions and family attitudes – smoking is much more common among children of smoking parents than of non-smokers. But does it mean that all parents should be banned from smoking? A prohibition on cigarette advertising is completely absurd if only because cigarettes are legal. They can be produced, they can be sold, and they can be consumed. Politicians seem to feel perfectly fine when they extort outrageous taxes from cigarette consumption. But when it comes to allowing people to receive information about cigarettes that they smoke, they impose a ban.
It is a fallacy to think that advertising serves only those who produce and sell cigarettes. This opinion stems from complete ignorance of elementary laws that govern the market and life in society. No smoker smokes because he wants to please cigarette companies. Quite the opposite. Cigarette companies produce and advertise cigarettes only because consumers want them. It is cigarette consumers who need advertising in the first place.
It is advertising that helps them choose cigarettes that will be the least detrimental to their health. It is advertising that helps them tell the cigarettes that were produced legally apart from those that are illegally manufactured. It is advertising that teaches the culture of smoking. After all, you won’t see an ad where cigarette-ends are chucked on the ground or smoke is puffed into the face of a non-smoker. Tobacco advertising indirectly benefits non-smokers as well. It allows us to see the best programmes and films on television, as well as to pay less for tickets to concerts and sporting events. Finally, cigarette advertising is the source of income for many people.
The EU law is another argument that Lithuanian officials have used to justify the prohibition. It is true that EU directives impose restrictions on cigarette advertising. Yet, only two EU member states – Sweden and Finland – have completely banned it. The EU is ready to negotiate the possibility of granting transition periods for the implementation of its directives. So why is Lithuania so keen to be ahead of even the real EU member states?
A prohibition on cigarette advertising looks especially weird in the context of today’s political rhetoric in Lithuania. The officialdom keeps talking about the need to liberate businesses and to reduce bureaucracies. Two official commissions have been established for this purpose – a Sunset Commission for the reduction of the bureaucratic machine and a Sunrise Commission for the improvement of business conditions in different areas. But the ban on cigarette advertising is nothing but another bureaucracy, a new manifestation of the will of politicians who see only what immediately strikes the eye and neglect to look beyond.