• February 27, 2024

Tracing Their Tracks

 Tracing Their Tracks

Photo: Taco Tuinstra

Photo: Taco Tuinstra

Musings on the movements of tobacco products from the field to the store shelf

By George Gay

I suppose that when a person decides it is time to buy a tobacco product, let’s say a pack of cigarettes, she enters the world of tobacco logistics, one of the last links in the multi-branched logistical chain that might be thought of as stretching from the tobacco seed through the consumer-level purchase to what is to be hoped will be the proper disposal of the butt.

In England, where I live, French was the official language for about 300 years from 1066, so it is not surprising that many of our English words have been borrowed from French, and “logistics” is one such word. It was originally applied, I believe, to the complexities of moving and accommodating armies, a task that has presumably become more complex, if easier on the feet, over time. The order to “walk to the next village and recharge yourselves on food plundered from the villagers” has become outdated, I guess, at least the bit about walking.

The logistics of buying cigarettes in England has similarly become more complex, with more uncertainties having been introduced, though it must be granted that, in some instances, it, too, has become easier on the feet. I cannot think, for instance, of any other consumer product apart from tobacco that you cannot see, handle and compare, at least at a packaging level, before you buy it. Indeed, I would have thought that such sales should have been made illegal; they certainly seem to be unethical and, from the point of view of the smoker, unwise. It is not for no reason that for at least 500 years, people here have been advised not to buy a “pig in a poke”—not to buy something without first being able to appraise it properly. And I believe it is still the case in U.K. restaurants that a customer cannot be forced to pay for food before eating it, which is no doubt a rule imposed by the French in 1077 after sampling what was on offer.

Hidden from View

Why go to the effort of requiring graphic health warnings if you then prevent anybody but those committed to buying them from seeing them? (Photo: Taco Tuinstra)

It is nevertheless the case that cigarettes are sold from behind the closed doors of aesthetically challenged cabinets and, even when those doors are opened to allow the retailer to take a pack out, it is just about impossible to see what other brands are available because those tobacco control people and politicians who are convinced that they should use their superior wisdom to save smokers from themselves have determined that all packs should look the same—grotesque. The hugely dominant feature of each pack is a so-called graphic health warning, which in fact is nothing of the sort but merely a bit of scaremongering showing some type of medical condition that smokers are supposed to assume is the outcome of indulging their habit but which they know could be related also to poverty, pollution, faulty genes and other lifestyle choices, including those involved in drinking alcohol.

The logistics of buying alcoholic drinks in England is allowed to be a much simpler affair even though the consumption of alcohol is a greater scourge on society than the consumption of cigarettes. All you need do is go along to your local supermarket, and there the drinks are laid out, row after row of them. In fact, row after row, right down to floor level so, presumably, children can run their little fingers along the bottles and cans and innocently admire the pretty colors and designs, including the odd cartoon. And, of course, those children watch adults put the bottles and cans into their trolleys and no doubt figure that this stuff is food, just like the other products on display. Although they don’t realize it, at least at the time, this is one of the lessons in traditional hypocrisy that adults will unthinkingly or uncaringly pass on to them.

I would have thought that from a logistics point of view, it would be logical to place alcoholic drinks inside cabinets where they cannot be seen, simply because these products, like cigarettes, are age restricted and raise health concerns but, unlike cigarettes, do not include graphic health warnings. But where is the logic in putting tobacco products inside cabinets where they cannot be seen? Why go to the effort of requiring the inclusion on cigarette packs of graphic health warnings, which, presumably, are meant to be visually off-putting, if you then prevent anybody but those committed to buying them from seeing them?

Logical Logistics

One trap that can spring when you start thinking about consumer logistics is that which I have moved close to above. Although the words logical and logistical are superficially similar in form, they have different roots, though you might expect that a good hand would be made of applying logical concepts to logistics. But, as can be seen, the logistics applied to the retail sales of cigarettes and alcohol are not logical, though they apparently appear to make sense to some people, perhaps because we live in an irrational world. 

Logistics, I guess, is largely about choice. If you grow tobacco inland and want to export it, you and your customer must weigh up whether you should, in the name of efficiency, send your leaf by truck or train, to which port and company you should send it and to which carrier you should entrust it. But at the consumer end of the logistics chain, there is very little in the way of choice, at least in England. A combination of manufacturer efficiencies, and the imposition of unconscionable levels of taxes and pointless tar and nicotine delivery-level limits have meant that cigarettes are all largely the same.

Successive governments, while superficially criticizing the major tobacco manufacturers, have contrived to squeeze the logistical channels and hand to those manufacturers an almost closed market that cannot in any way be justified on the grounds of reducing the risks to smokers. Limiting the range of cigarettes has had no benefit for smokers. But limiting the range of cigarettes has benefited tobacco manufacturers while de facto limiting the number of manufacturers on the market has made the government’s tax collection much more cost effective and provided bigger targets for tobacco control, which can rightly point out that there are almost no cigarette manufacturing jobs available in England and, setting aside taxes, only costs. Logistical logic apparently has it that it is better to transport cigarettes across Europe and what is known here as the English Channel while the world drives nonchalantly past 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming and environmental catastrophe.

I don’t believe what we are expected to swallow about there being no safe level of tobacco consumption but a safe level of alcohol consumption, an idea that is used to support proposals to limit the sale of the tobacco but not of alcohol. The government in England, which says that people should limit alcohol consumption to 14 units a week, would have conniptions if anybody set a limit of 14 cigarettes a week. But in a country where more than 90 percent of people spend their lives in polluted air, 14 cigarettes a week is going to be neither here nor there. But again, the logistics do not reflect this. While alcohol is on open sale, cigarettes are not, and now, noises are being made about limiting the number of retail outlets allowed to sell the latter, something that the good and the great will no doubt latch onto in due course and something that will simply increase the inconvenience for smokers and the polluting, environment-wrecking distances they will drive to obtain their cigarettes. If there is one thing that should be left to the market, it is the number of retail outlets that sell a particular consumer product.

Of course, you don’t have to visit a local retail store to obtain your cigarettes. You have other logistical options open to you, some of which will help preserve your footwear. You can buy them while you are on an overseas holiday or make a special trip across the Channel to buy them—by car if you are not concerned about the environment. And you can also buy them online if you are reasonably technically literate, and once bought, they can be delivered to your home or your workplace, even to the pub, though you will have to smoke them outside, possibly at a distance greater than that from which they were delivered.

The Generational Ban

One of the interesting aspects of cigarette-buying logistics arises if you start to wonder what will happen when and if the government brings in its generational smoking ban. So far, the U.K. government has issued a consultation document on smoking and vaping that includes a proposal to make it an offense to sell any product containing tobacco to those born on or after Jan.1, 2009, which would raise the legal “smoking age” by a year each year until it applies to the whole population.

Currently, retailers are obliged to prevent sales of tobacco products to those under the age of 18, and, as reported in the December issue of Tobacco Reporter, age identification technology is available that is good at helping retailers signed up to the Challenge 25 scheme in carrying out this task. The technology works by examining faces, determining whether somebody is younger than or older than 25. If the prospective customer appears to be over 25, the sale of cigarettes can go ahead while if she appears to be under 25, the retailer is obliged to ask for identification.

Although I have no real insights into this, I cannot help thinking it is going to be difficult updating the technology each year as the age limit is raised under the generational scheme. If, in the future, you want to separate the 49-year-old born in 2008 from the 48-year-old born in 2009, will the technology be adjustable to a Challenge 56 scheme, or will it have to be modified to examine people’s hands, which become a more accurate gauge of aging than faces as people get older? Perhaps other parts of the body are even more telling of age, but I simply refuse to let my imagination dwell on the scene in the retailers with a line of middle-aged and older smokers stripped to their underwear for examination.

Perhaps under a generational scheme, smokers will have to be issued with annually updated, smoker-specific identity cards. Or perhaps they could circumvent the whole merry-go-round and grow their own tobacco. In fact, there might be an opening here for kits that could help people convert raw tobacco to smokeable cigarettes, something that I believe is not possible on a small scale as things stand. A move to artisanal cigarette making could significantly reduce the logistical chain of these products and their environmental impact.