Ad Bans Are a Bad Idea
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
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
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
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
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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