The cigarette display ban is a smoking gun in the war on free expression

THERE’S something odd about my local Tesco. Since April, the kiosk at the entrance has looked incredibly dull. As I was recently trying to work out why, I saw a sign saying that all cigarettes and tobacco-related products must now be hidden behind closed doors – to comply with UK regulations.

As an economist, I have little expertise into whether such measures prevent people from smoking. Given that one of tobacco’s primary appeals to teenagers is cultivating rebellion, I suspect that more secrecy won’t help. But I could be wrong. And I’m not aware of any studies that have attempted to understand the costs that this policy imposes on retailers. I note that my local newsagents have not fitted any doors yet – they can wait until April 2015. But the owner laments this barrier to honest commerce.

My problem with the ban is the threat it poses to the liberty of marketers.

Like any art form, reactions to advertisements are often subjective. Many see them as crass, but they’re art nevertheless. Indeed, some tobacco adverts are iconic. Marlboro man is a legend, and I still remember the Hamlet cigar television adverts from my childhood. They had little impact on me because I do not smoke and it isn’t allowed in my house. But, while I don’t tolerate smoking on my property, I am happy to tolerate it elsewhere. That’s called society.

I must confess that the smoking ban was in my personal interest, since I enjoy not stinking of smoke after a night in a pub. But it was concern for the liberty of others that meant I opposed it. Now, though, my liberties are being directly impinged. I want any company to be able to express its identity, and I see this law as a final nail in the coffin of a particular freedom of expression.

The big issue in this debate on the cigarette display ban is how the policy has been received in business schools. You might expect an economist to be against it – after all we tend to take individual liberties quite seriously, and we don’t like imposing regulatory costs on businesses. But it is doesn’t really have much to do with economics. What I find odd is that marketing professors do not seem as troubled as I am, especially when this is a direct suppression of their discipline.

When governments arbitrarily decide that certain products cannot be advertised – even to the point that the producer must give up control of their packaging, and cannot even be seen publicly – we have an attack on the science of marketing. Even if marketing professors are personally opposed to smoking, and don’t feel ashamed to inflict that opposition on others, at what point is enough enough? It shouldn’t be left to free market economists to protect the freedom of expression upon which marketing relies.

Anthony J. Evans is associate professor of economics at ESCP Europe Business School. Website: www.anthonyjevans.com Email: anthonyjevans@gmail.com Twitter: @anthonyjevans

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