Monday 1 April 2024

Why is alcohol regulated differently to tobacco?

Why is alcohol advertised openly in the UK, without pictures on the packaging highlighting the medical effects, for example, when tobacco is treated so differently? John Fisher, by email

Yesterday, the Observer published the replies, a mixed bag mostly harvested from the comments section. There are one or two nutters but also a few sensible souls. 

Nobody mentioned the official reason that was repeated for decades by the anti-smoking lobby and which is gradually fading from the popular memory as we slide down the slippery slope.

The official argument for regulating tobacco differently to alcohol is that cigarettes are a “unique product”. The WHO says that tobacco “is the only legal consumer product that kills when used exactly as intended by the manufacturer." This was the explanation given by anti-smoking campaigners for decades whenever it was suggested that tobacco regulation creates a "slippery slope”. For example, when campaigning for plain packaging in 2012, Deborah Arnott of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said:

“...the “domino theory” i.e. that once a measure has been applied to tobacco it will be applied to other products is patently false. The same argument was used against the ban on tobacco advertising, but 9 years after the tobacco ban in the UK, alcohol advertising is still permitted with no sign of it being prohibited. Tobacco is a uniquely dangerous consumer product which is why there is a WHO health treaty (the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) to regulate tobacco use.”

The American anti-smoking activist and academic Stanton Glantz wrote in 2003:

"The 'slippery slope' argument is one that the tobacco industry has routinely raised to oppose policies against its interests, including smokefree policies, decisions by arts and cultural organizations not to accept tobacco money, advertising restrictions, and other policies. These predicted subsequent problems simply have not materialized"

In the same year, with reference to warning labels on cigarettes, the Australian anti-smoking activist and academic Simon Chapman wrote:

"In pre-warning days, when arguments could be couched in incredulity that tobacco should be singled out from other consumer products, the industry used “slippery slope” or “thin edge of the wedge” rhetoric, arguing that the policy would inexorably bleed into other product areas. 'The precedent is one which could easily come to affect other industries. For instance, a number of medical scientists claim that butter and milk are dangerous to the health of some people. It is recognised that drinking too much liquor or reckless driving are hazards to life... can we expect all these products to carry a ‘danger’ label …?' This argument appears to have quickly lost momentum when the dire predictions of rampant warnings never materialised.”

More recently, however, public health campaigners have cited the precedent of graphic warnings, advertising bans and plain packaging for tobacco as a justification for applying the same regulations to other products, including alcohol. It is far too early to say that the “dire predictions” were wrong.

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