The downside of tobacco display bans

In Canada, we’ve had a dark market in tobacco for some time now.  Now as opposed to a black market (non approved sales of tobacco) this is form of marketing where the product is government sanctioned but where it is to be sold under conditions of not being visible to consumers.  The reasoning for this is that if people do not see the product they are less likely to buy it.

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photo from Windsor Star

Over at, Patrick Basham and John Luik point out a number of problems associated with dark marketing, one of those being how it could fuel the black market:

There are several reasons why banning tobacco displays drives the illicit tobacco market. First, by putting all tobacco products under the counter, a display ban undermines the belief that tobacco is a legal, regulated product and that selling and consuming counterfeit and smuggled tobacco products are crimes. Surveys in Canada have found, for example, that a majority of Canadians who buy illicit cigarettes do not believe that they are committing a crime.

Second, display bans fuel the illicit tobacco market by making it more difficult for customers to distinguish between legal and illegal products, since all tobacco is hidden from view. Third, display bans make it easier for dishonest store keepers to mix illicit and untaxed tobacco products and legitimate taxed cigarettes and thus to pass off illicit products.

Fourth, display bans make it more difficult for enforcement agencies, already overtaxed, to identify illicit tobacco products since all tobacco products are hidden from view. Fifth, through blurring the distinction between above and below the counter products, between legal cigarettes and illegal cigarettes, a display ban makes it more likely that smokers will increasingly get their tobacco from illegal as opposed to the legal and regulated tobacco market.

Worthy criticisms all but why should we in tobacco harm reduction be concerned about these bans in particular?  Two reasons I can think worth mentioning are

1. Any half baked or evidence independent policies muddy the water sufficiently to distract people from the real problem which is not people smoking but the health effects of smoking and how best to minimize those.

2. If products are hidden it makes it more difficult for consumers to compare products or be exposed to safer alternatives for obtaining nicotine.  Dark markets are anti-harm reduction in that they remove health information from the environment.  Just as those panels are hiding the warning labels on the cigarette packages so they will hide any educational messages about safer alternatives should the government ever deign to think that their constituents deserve such information.

Thanks to Christopher over at Velvet Glove for comments that led me to the original article.


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