New EU tobacco rules: In defence of the menthol cigarettes and packs of 10 that will soon be banned

 
Chris Snowdon
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Shaken Not Stirred
The cigarette industry will face legislative crackdowns from tomorrow (Source: Getty)

Among the many petty new rules being introduced in the EU's Tobacco Products Directive, which comes into force tomorrow, is a ban on menthol and a ban on packs of 10.

The ban on menthol came about as a result of anti-smoking hype about "characterising flavours". There was much chatter in Brussels about the supposed allure of strawberry and liquorice flavoured cigarettes to young people.

In twenty years of smoking I never saw, let alone bought, a fruit flavoured ciggie.

Read more: New laws will stub out menthol cigarettes and 10-packs from tomorrow

The tiny market share of such products suggests that, far from appealing to youth, they are unappealing to nearly everybody. Menthol is also something of a niche product in most countries but with five per cent of the EU market, millions of people will be affected by the ban - the vast majority of whom are adults.

The ban on menthol is part of the anti-smoking lobby's tactic of incremental prohibition which targets minorities within minorities.

Prohibition

You don't need to be a history don to know what happens under prohibition. It would be a miracle if menthol cigarettes do not start flowing into the EU from China, Russia, North Africa and elsewhere when the ban comes into effect in four years time.

The ban on packs of 10 is less likely to have a direct impact on the illicit trade since black marketeers prefer to sell in large units, but it will have an important indirect effect.

Not just packs of 10

Strictly speaking, the EU is not just banning packs of 10. It is banning any pack that contains fewer than 20 cigarettes.

In recent years, as tobacco duty has risen, packs of 19, 18 and even 17 cigarettes have become increasingly popular. As those units disappear, consumers will find the cost of a pack of cigarettes suddenly leaping up.

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Anti-smoking campaigners hope that this will be the shock they need to inspire them to quit but, given how inelastic demand for tobacco is, it is more likely that it will inspire them to buy their cigarettes from a man with a van.

The change will be particularly noticeable for those who are used to buying packs of 10.

Suddenly having to pay twice as much when they visit the corner shop may encourage some smokers to source their cigarettes from elsewhere, but it will certainly mean that they have more cigarettes to hand.

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This is significant because many people buy packs of ten as an aid to self-control. Shahram Heshmat, in his recent book on behavioural economics, mentions that "the government requires cigarettes to be sold in small packs of 10 cigarettes so that people will consume less".

Now that the government is requiring cigarettes to be sold in large packs, the same logic dictates that people will consume more.

When the ban on packs of 10 was mentioned to David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions in 2013, he said: "It does not, on the face of it, sound a very sensible approach."

The same could be said of the whole EU directive.

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