Ad Bans Are a Bad Idea

Alexander Volokh
San Marino Tribune, August 31, 1995

President Clinton, in his haste to stop underage smoking, wants to impose sweeping new restrictions on cigarette advertising. This includes billboards, sporting events, and certain magazines. He also wants to eliminate the distribution of free samples and promotional merchandise. He shouldn't. Advertising restrictions are a bad idea, even -- and especially -- for cigarettes. Here's why.

Want to help folks die prematurely? Try an ad ban. There's little evidence that ad bans prevent people from smoking. Some anecdotal evidence to the contrary: Norwegians are among Europe's heaviest smokers, in spite of high cigarette prices and tobacco ad bans. 35 percent of Norwegians between 16 and 74 smoke regularly. And Eastern Europe, under Communism, has had high smoking rates, even though advertising was virtually banned.

But ad bans do keep people smoking more dangerous cigarettes. In general, newer cigarettes are safer, and American cigarettes are safer than foreign cigarettes. In Europe and elsewhere, ad bans protect old brands from the relatively safer American brands. "The absence of publicity doesn't encourage us to release really new products, since we can't tell people about it," says Jacques Leclerc, a vice president of R.J. Reynolds in France.

Ad bans discourage the development of safer cigarettes. In the 1950s, when the cancer connection was proposed, cigarette companies tried to gain market share by scaring people about competing brands. John Calfee of the Brookings Institution reports that back then, when cigarette ads were less regulated, competition routinely led to ads with information on the health effects of smoking -- much of it in blunt language -- though this was bad for the industry as a whole. Health advertising was a good way to promote one brand over another and was an important weapon for smaller firms trying to get business from larger firms.

This competition also brought rapid improvements in cigarette design. From 1957 to 1959, in the "Great Tar Derby," tar and nicotine levels went down 40 percent because of health advertising -- even though that sort of advertising was illegal, because the government was against unsubstantiated health claims. But later, increased regulation eliminated companies' incentive to improve cigarette designs. As an advertising professional said at the time: "You build a better mousetrap and then they say you can't mention mice or traps."

How far can ad bans go? In Europe, there was a proposal to outlaw all advertising in 10 product categories, including tobacco, alcohol, proprietary medicines, insurance, and baby formula. In Russia, Yeltsin banned alcohol, tobacco, and unapproved drug advertising -- just days before banning all advertising. Brazil's Health Ministry banned cigarette ads from sporting and cultural events and on TV until 11 p.m. In Brazil, prime-time shows and TV news can't show people smoking. Ads can't suggest that smokers are socially, professionally, or sexually successful. "Pretty soon, the Government will ban television interviews with people who are poorly dressed," grumbled Gilberto Leifert of Conar, the Brazilian advertising industry's self-regulating council.

Can an ad ban be pulled off harmlessly, without perverse consequences? Don't bet on it. The French government has been privatizing its tobacco monopoly, Seita, the maker of Gauloises. In January, five weeks into its ad campaign for the sale of Seita, the government had to launch an inquiry into its own activities after someone pointed out that French law bans tobacco ads. Finally, the privatization was allowed to continue, with publicity limited to newspapers and radio. François le Brun of La Vie Française remarks: "How can Seita present itself to future stockholders without even once talking about cigarettes? It'll be a pretty exercise in communication." Later, an anti-smoking group tried to tell its members to buy Seita stock, so that they could influence the company's decisions. They were investigated too.

And what about the consequences for the media? Advertising is 100 percent of TV revenues and 70 percent to 80 percent of newspaper and magazine revenues. The media owes much of its existence to "sin" advertising. As one magazine executive put it, "We would be really lost without sin." Movieline, a Los Angeles-based entertainment magazine, gets about 19 percent of its ad revenues from tobacco advertising and another 13 percent from alcohol advertising. CBS founder William Paley was heir to a cigar fortune; as Mike Youngren grudgingly admitted in the Salt Lake Tribune, "If not for R.J. Reynolds, network television news, as we know it, might not exist." Here's what's happening in France -- newspapers are going bankrupt in droves, readership is dropping, and one of the reasons is the 1993 ban on tobacco and alcohol ads. In January, the Evening Standard reported that these "draconian restrictions" had "claimed their first victim. The leading French current affairs journal Actuel will fold at the end of this month after 20 years." Elmar Brok of the European Parliament reports that this is especially a problem for the small, struggling outfits, like regional newspapers. European ad bans can even be a problem for American publications. There have been proposals floating about to ban some American and British magazines with tobacco ads from sale in Europe -- or at least everywhere that outlaws tobacco promotion, including Spain, Italy, France and Greece.

So ad bans are bad for people's health, discouraging innovation by making it impossible to talk about it. They tend to expand beyond "just cigarettes." They have perverse effects in unrelated fields. They produce media concentration by making it harder for small publications to get funding. Worse, they restrain the consumer's right to be informed about legal products, and block the lines of communication between producers and consumers that's crucial to a well-functioning economy. And by treating commercial free speech as different than "regular" free speech -- and setting a precedent of carving out exceptions to the First Amendment -- they weaken the case for free speech as a whole.

How do we discourage kids from smoking? Treat smoking as a risky activity like any other, with its enjoyments and its costs. Don't make kids think it's a "forbidden fruit," one of the few ways to rebel against nagging adults without getting into jail. And don't solve the smoking problem at the cost of free speech.

Alexander Volokh is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a public policy think tank in Los Angeles.

(also appeared in Chico (Cal.) Enterprise-Record, September 3, 1995; Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune, September 10, 1996; Pasadena (Cal.) Weekly, September 15, 1995; Herald Sunday (Portsmouth, N.H.), January 14, 1996

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