Cigarettes don’t kill people, harmful carcinogens in cigarettes kill people

Courtney Knapp has an interesting piece up on the new graphic images that will be added to cigarette packs in an effort to curb smoking.


She writes:

These new labels will be required on all cigarette packs, cartons and ads no later than September 2012. So in the meantime, we have time for a thought experiment. Yesterday, Cheap Talk contributor and Northwestern University economics professor Jeffrey Ely posed an excellent question to me:

Suppose you had a choice between only two policies: A) grotesque pictures or B) increased per-pack taxes calculated to generate exactly the same reduction in demand. Which do you prefer?

This is a tough question. To me, as disturbing as the photos are, raising already regressive-taxes (assuming that current levels of taxes with discount rate already more than offset the costs to government of people smoking) is bad policy. Smokers may quit or not start, but without a larger revenue stream no new vested interests would be created. On the flip side, no revenue could possibly be earmarked for an agreeable cause.

What do you think, dear readers?

Which policy would you choose? Will the images deter nonsmokers?

Smokers, are the images likely to help you quit or will you acclimate to the images after a few packs? Would you pay more for a pack without the warnings?

I think it’s an interesting thought experiment: would consumers pay a higher price for non-labeled packs? I don’t know. As an ex-smoker, I suppose it’s more likely I’d pay for the cheaper pack and then put my cigarettes in a cigarette case. Maybe slap a picture of Camel Joe holding a bunny on it for good measure.

I think a better idea than simply raising taxes ad infinitum or shaming smokers with images of fetuses or whatever would be to legalize the sale of single-cigarettes at gas stations, bars and so forth. There is something really ridiculous about being forced to purchase cigarettes 20 at a time. It makes it much more difficult to quit. It also makes it easier to pick the habit back up if you have to buy a pack at a time.

As someone who has relapsed now and again, I know it would be much better if I could stave off a craving by purchasing a single smoke instead. I wouldn’t have that sense of obligation to clean my plate, as it were. I know a lot of people in similar circumstances.

Sometimes giving people more choices can be better than shaming them or taxing them.

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the editor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.


  1. Oh, very smart, the 1 cigarette rule. I’d imagine the Tobacco industry has/would fight this tooth-and-nail for the very reason that it’s so likely to work.

    About the ads: IIRC, aren’t they also reducing the levels of nicotine (and tar insofar as they can) in cigarettes too? If so, this would seemingly inevitably lead to those who are already addicted buying and smoking much more than they used to. Unintended consequences, I guess; maybe we’re just writing those poor souls off?

    • I wrote RJR a few years back asking whether they’d be willing to consider selling packs of 4 cigarettes for a dollar. (This was when Packs cost $2.50.)

      I talked about how, sometimes, I just want a cigarette while I’m at the bar or after a movie but I don’t want to buy a whole pack.

      “Legislation”, came the answer. It ain’t legal to sell packs in less than 20 in most states and loosies are illegal in almost all of them now.


  2. Sadly, I think that people will get acclimatized tot he images very quickly. In SIngapore, we have had really horriffic pictures.

    but in the end people go to the counter and ask for the “neck cancer” one. If we are serious about reducing smoking, tax cigarettes. Tax them until it hurts.

    • Wow, that’s some pretty serious stuff.

      I think that a lot of people will get used to them, but box-covers will become more popular. The makers may even be able to put their logo on the covers until the legislation catches up. After that, they can put cartoon cowboys on them. “What, we can’t put cartoon cowboys on a box? It’s just a box. If people put cigarettes in them, well they just happened to put cigarettes in this box that happens to feature a picture of a cartoon cowboy with an abnormally large toothpick coming out of his mouth. That smoke is coming from that fire in the background.”

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