Doing the Math

    Photo: Fran_kie

    The numbers presented on illicit trade (and many other topics) should not always be taken at face value.

    By George Gay

    Shortly before I was asked to write this story on the illegal trade in cigarettes, the U.K.’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, came up with a plan aimed, I assume, at helping to ameliorate the damage done to the country by his and previous conservative governments since 2010. His idea was that all pupils should be made to study mathematics until the age of 18, an aim that included some obvious pitfalls. For instance, given the plan was put in place, increasing numbers of people would come into contact with imaginary numbers, and even numbers that are difficult to imagine, such as 0.0005, which is about the percentage of the population who voted for Sunak to become prime minister.

    Even if, like me, you’re not a mathematician, it’s worth keeping your eye on figures that are presented to you. And in this regard, I was intrigued by a press note announcing the publication of a paper by Researchers at the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project, the University of Waterloo, Canada, who were said to have “evaluated the impact of federal and provincial menthol cigarette bans in Canada by surveying smokers of menthol and nonmenthol cigarettes before and after Canada’s menthol ban.” The research study was said to have found that “banning menthol cigarettes does not lead more smokers to purchase menthols from illicit sources, contradicting claims made by the tobacco industry that the proposed ban of menthol cigarettes in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration will lead to a significant increase in illicit cigarettes.”

    However, even a person with a limited understanding of mathematics would have to wonder whether the study’s findings support this statement, even leaving aside the seemingly important issue that Canada isn’t the U.S. It seems to me that it is a bit of a leap to make the above claim when the number of menthol cigarette smokers who took part in the study seems to have been only 138 (the study included, too, 1,098 smokers of nonmenthol cigarettes, who were used, at least in part, as a “control group”).

    As I read things,* menthol cigarette smokers were surveyed in 2016, before the nationwide ban** was brought in, and again in 2018, after the ban was introduced. Of the 138 menthol cigarette smokers who were surveyed in 2018, only 36 reported smoking menthol cigarettes after the ban while brand checks indicated that only 17 were actually smoking menthol cigarettes at that time and that the most recent cigarette purchases of only 13 of those 17 had comprised menthol cigarettes. Again, as I read things, only nine of the 17 bought their menthol cigarettes from outlets on First Nations reserves, but, despite these tiny figures, the researchers present their results to the first decimal place and are happy to conclude that “After Canada’s menthol ban, there was no increase in illicit purchasing of menthol or nonmenthol cigarettes from First Nations reserves.”

    The press note seems to push that conclusion further. Its heading, “Study refutes industry claims that ban on menthol cigarettes leads to increased use of illegal smokes,” is not confined to First Nations reserves outlets but presumably encompasses the other outlets covered: convenience stores, the internet, supermarkets and bars/pubs.

    This is important, I think. You can imagine somebody in the future quoting the report by saying that 51.2 percent of sales of illicit menthol cigarettes in Canada post the menthol cigarette ban were made on First Nation reserves. That sounds impressive, of course, unless you know that the 51.2 percent figure is based on little more than a handful of purchases.

    What is the justification for trying to “save” menthol cigarette smokers, but not other smokers, from the consequences of their own actions?

    An Alternative Destination

    Having said that, my main gripe with the study was that it was superfluous, and yet the authors called in at least two places for further research into this matter. Why is money spent on such studies when the world is in desperate need of funding for basic science?

    I was never sold on the idea that a ban on menthol cigarettes would necessarily and greatly increase the sale of illicit products in the place where the ban was imposed. And I certainly wasn’t sold on the idea that you need to carry out studies to get to the bottom of this question, though I understand that they are needed to keep going the huge economic benefits to be enjoyed by the increasingly large, multi-faceted industry dedicated to making the lives of smokers more miserable.

    So the following is my contribution—an open-access, no-cost method of getting to the bottom of the menthol cigarette question. Wait until you are alone, sit down in a not-too-comfortable chair, switch off all electronic distractions, refrain from drinking alcohol and allow yourself the luxury of thinking; and, after a time, it will probably become clear that, assuming those selling menthol cigarettes post a ban will set their prices competitively, three major factors will interact to determine the level of sales of illicit menthol cigarettes in the place where such products are banned. Those are: the appeal of the products in the place where the ban is imposed, the efficiency of the authorities charged with preventing the manufacture and distribution of illicit products in that place and the ease with which the borders of the place can be sealed against the products.

    It is not difficult to figure out which countries would find it relatively easy to enforce bans on menthol cigarettes successfully and which would find it more challenging. And, as to the appeal of the products, it only needs to be remembered that the prohibition is not on cigarettes but on menthol. Importantly, the prohibition is not on nicotine, the thing that we are told keeps people coming back for cigarettes, but on a flavor that is preferred by a minority of smokers; so, without moving from my chair, I came to the belief that normally law-abiding, former menthol cigarette smokers were more likely to switch to nonmenthol brands than to go looking for illicit menthol cigarettes. And, in one sense, the research backs this up when it reports that of the 36 people who claimed to be smoking menthol cigarettes after the ban, 19 of them were mistaken. Of course, since the advent of the motor car and the tendency to speed has made most adults fairly flexible when it comes to obeying certain laws, and since it is possible that illicit menthol cigarettes might be offered to them in venues where alcoholic drink is being consumed and, therefore, decision-making flawed, a certain level of illegal trade has to be expected.

    But the fear of increasing the illegal trade is probably the least of any number of issues that are raised by bans on menthol cigarettes. One ethical consideration concerns discrimination. What is the justification for discriminating against menthol cigarette smokers? Or, looked at another way, what is the justification for discriminating against the smokers of nonmenthol cigarettes? What is the justification for trying to “save” menthol cigarette smokers, but not other smokers, from the consequences of their own actions?

    Rising Poverty

    But that’s enough from Canada. Let’s alight briefly in France where, in January, there was a report of a raid on an illicit tobacco factory that resulted in the seizure of more than 100 tons of tobacco-related products said to be worth €17 million ($18.7 million).

    Sitting in my chair, I wondered what I was supposed to make of this story. I guess it was meant to come across as a success in which the coordinated powers of national and international law and order foiled the activities of criminals. But I couldn’t help thinking that it described a failure since the main aim of law enforcement should be prevention rather than the clumsier activities associated with detection and prosecution. And there was a rather unpleasant aspect to the story, which described how the French police had arrested nine suspects, “most of them Moldovan nationals.” Unsurprisingly but unfortunately, we shall probably never know what brought these people to feel that their best hope was to live and work in a factory far from their home and constantly with the fear of detection.

    Could it be that they were financially impoverished? In a report in The Guardian on Jan. 23, wealth correspondent Rupert Neate quoted Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as saying that, in the period defined by the Covid pandemic and its aftermath, many people found life very difficult. And he added that, during the same period, it was shocking how many people and rich corporations made off like bandits. Those bandits, of course, will not be brought to justice.

    The question arises as to why it is seen as perfectly legitimate to create within the EU a fertile environment for the illegal trade in cigarettes by applying unfair levels of taxes while mandating that licit cigarettes should be as unpleasant as possible and then spend precious resources on hunting down those who try to get around such obstacles. With the advent of next-generation products (NGPs), the time is overdue for new thinking. Reduce taxes on cigarettes, remove the laws that require licit cigarettes to be unappealing, heavily promote alternative, low-risk tobacco and nicotine products, and the laws of competition will dissolve the problem of the illegal trade in cigarettes. 

    Of course, NGPs are not immune from being traded illegally, and I was intrigued by a recent press note from the U.K.’s Chartered Trading Standards Institute entitled “Illicit vapes top list of high street threats, say Trading Standards experts.” The note made some good points, but I was pulled up short by one comment. “It’s important we support retailers to ensure that products [vapes] are sold responsibly …. If we don’t, there’s a risk that products could be banned or overregulated, leaving smokers without the option of a product that carries a fraction of the risks of smoking and is an extremely effective aid to quitting.”

    At this point, I had to retire to my chair. What was this person saying? That he believes the U.K. government is so muddled in its thinking that it might ban vapes, a product that, in his own words, carries “a fraction of the risks of smoking” and comprises “an extremely effective aid to quitting [smoking],” if those products are sold to children? At the same time, he seemed to be implying that the government would not ban combustible cigarettes, the consumption of which is hugely riskier than is the consumption of vapes, and which are also sold to children.

    But perhaps he’s right to be concerned. You have to wonder whether the U.K. government isn’t a little hazy on questions of risk. Last year, while he was chancellor, Sunak was forced to pay a fine for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules. And he started this year by having to pay a fine for traveling in a vehicle while not wearing a seatbelt.

    *Not being a mathematician nor a scientist, I had some difficulty following the figures, in no small part because percentages did not correspond with reported sample sizes, possibly because of the tiny sample sizes involved.

    **The report and the press note use, sometimes in the same sentence, both the words “ban” and “bans,” the latter to refer sometimes to provincial bans. I have used only “ban,” reflecting the fact that the menthol cigarette ban now applies nationwide, but I should point out that whereas the provinces introduced menthol cigarette bans between 2015 and 2018, the two surveys took place in 2016 and 2018.