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Finland to ban smoking

In Canada and the United States, most drug related stories have been buried by the excitement regarding the recent rulings in favour of keeping Insite open, and having the FDA butt out of regulating the importation of electronic cigarettes.

That being said, one very important global news story almost slipped past our radar: Finland is trying to eliminate smoking within the next 30 years (full article here).

While most comments on this news story indicate that people are frustrated by these paternalistic laws, and quite frankly are sick of living in a “nanny state”, the government expects the legislation to pass without much objection. Conversely, I am, with regards to this proposal, of two minds.

On the one hand, the Finnish government is equivocating on the risks associated with different methods of tobacco delivery, thereby limiting smokers’ options to choose lower risk alternatives. They intend to do this by putting tobacco products behind the counter. We’ve indicated here and elsewhere the dangers of conflating a spectrum of risk to two categories: “risky” and “not risky” – so I won’t go into much detail aside from pointing out that this is bad. Very bad.

On the other hand, there are people who will quit using tobacco in Finland just because it is illegal. This is good. These people would probably be able to have quit, anyway, but this legislation may represent a good catalyst. Smoking is bad, and quitting is best, so that’s one potentially positive outcome. Moreover, while vilifying, and embarrassing smokers by forcing them to become outlaws should they continue smoking is inherently bad, smokers may, in the end, benefit.

In Canada, contraband cigarettes make up between 20 and 50% of all tobacco sales. The government indicates this creates “unfair competition for an honest business”. Certainly this is true, but when tobacco use becomes completely illegal, a black market will be the only source for people who believe they are truly addicted to find cigarettes. With enough competition, cigarettes will be more affordable in these markets.

Further to this, the government will be at a loss when it comes to leveraging astronomical sin taxes against smokers, many of whom are already economically disadvantaged. That can be the continuing smokers’ final F-U; a satisfying feeling of smoking cheaper cigarettes with no proceeds going toward the entity which seemed bent on incrementally depriving them of their small pleasure.

In Canada the government is losing almost 1 billion dollars annually on contraband cigarettes, while collecting approximately 1.8 billion on legal sales. Finland is closing the doors on millions and millions of tax dollars, while enacting an inherently bad law that is impossible to enforce behind closed doors. So, good luck to Finland and best of luck to those who will use this legislation as the impetus to quit. Finally, further luck still to those who will continue to smoke and refused to feel shamed by this paternalistic legislation.