Saturday, July 23, 2011

An End to Loosies?

Opened cigarette boxes offer 'loosies' along Ave. Jimenez.
On Thursday a law took effect prohibiting all cigarette advertising and, more controversally, the sale of 'loosies' or single cigarettes.

Most of the public commentary I've heard about the 'loosies' prohibition has been negative: it will hurt the incomes of the informal vendors and small shopkeepers who sell single cigarettes; by making full packs the only option, smokers will smoke nor, not less; the law is unenforceable.

Building a future market: tobacco company contractors
interview young people about their smoking habits
in La Candelaria, a university neighborhood.
The first two criticisms miss the point. Yes, an end to loose cigarette sales will cut vendors' incomes. But, if vendors' incomes were the top priority, then we should give them license to sell heroin, cocaine and pornography to anybody who wants them, as well. On the second, I doubt whether, on balance, many people would smoke more without loosies, but this law's goal is not to affect adult smokers, who have a right to continue their habit. Access to cheap, single cigarettes, which can be bought on the street starting at about 150 pesos, or a dime, gets lots of kids started smoking and starts them on a lifelong addiction. If they had to shell out for a whole pack, they might buy a candy instead - or even save their coins.

A lifelong market? young person smokes on La Plaza del Chorro. 
On the other hand, critics are right that this law will likely not be enforced, altho it could be. A local shopkeeper tells me that cigarettes sell for about one-third more when vended singly than when sold by the pack. That gives vendors a big economic incentive to open cigarette packs and sell the sticks one by one. 

Expect shopkeepers to keep their opened packs under the counter. If police or health authorities question them, they'll just explain that those ten opened packs are the ones they are smoking themselves.
In a neighborhood shop. This space
had contained a cigarette ad. 

The only way to catch single-stick sellers would be with sting operations: employing people to try to buy single cigarettes. But Colombian police don't use such strategies.

The tobacco companies have removed lots of the cigarette advertising which has papered this city. But they haven't given up on their battle on young Colombians' hearts and lungs. This afternoon, I watched young people interviewing other young people about their smoking and cigarette buying habits. They appear to focus only on young men and women - after all, that's tobacco's future market.

A Marlboro sign in a city bus. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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