Cigarettes are so harmful that stopping smokers buying safer substitutes is like stopping people protecting themselves from HIV, says man who sells cigarettes.
What it means: Economists are always arguing about what people should be allowed to sell. Some think the answer should be anything they can find a willing buyer for, because free choice and all that. But most people think there should be some limits to this sort of ‘free’ market, and governments should step in to control or prevent trade in things like human body parts, porn and drugs.
Part of the reason is that society can end up picking up the tab for an individual’s choices. Smoking, for example, cost the NHS around £2.6 billion a year. And 600,000 people around the world die yearly from secondhand smoke.
So most governments heavily interfere with the cigarette market to try and get people to buy less of them. Heavy taxes increase the price. Bans on advertising discourage new customers. Campaigns warn of the health risk. But the nicotine in cigarettes is so addictive that smokers continue to buy the product regardless of how dangerous they think it is or how much it costs (FWIW, the fancy economics term for products people buy regardless of the cost is ‘price inelastic’).
This is why many governments are still torn about what to do with e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes are still filled with nicotine, and therefore addictive, but have a lot less nasty stuff in them than regular smokes. Not regulating them could be a good thing if it encourages smokers to switch and a bad thing if it encourages non-smokers to start.
Tobacco companies, which sell e-cigarettes alongside the normal sort, are leaning heavily on governments not to regulate them. Andre Calantzopoulos’s odd comments about condoms were supposed to suggest e-cigarettes are practically a public good because they stop smokers being exposed to (as many) carcinogens. We’re sure the fact that the company he runs makes $7.7 billion a quarter from unregulated e-cigarettes is entirely coincidental.