The ethics of selling cigarettes

When Bain helped cigarette companies penetrate the Russian market, it was doing A Very Bad Thing.

Having failed to get into the fray in timely fashion on Harold’s post about Romney, Bain, and cigarettes, let me offer a few belated comments:

1. Mass-market cigarettes are much more health-damaging than they need to be to deliver nicotine to people who want, or are addicted to, nicotine. It’s hardly unfair to hold the companies and their enablers morally culpable for killing people unnecessarily.

2. Yes, smokers in the U.S. know the habit is bad for you, despite decades of expensive effort by the cigarette companies to obfuscate the truth. Smokers in Russia, maybe not so much.

3. Most adult smokers are hooked. Their smoking isn’t fully “voluntary” anymore. Yes, they could quit; most have tried at least once, and failed. The median number of unsuccessful quit attempts before success is five. Some people never lose the craving: they will have intrusive thoughts about smoking for the rest of their lives.

4. Almost no one starts smoking as an adult. More than 90% of the addicts start as minors. Those transactions are already illegal. And yet the cigarette companies keep shaping their marketing efforts to capture new, underage smokers, who are after all the future of the business. (Camel is now doing well with “Camel Crush,” which converts from non-menthol to menthol when you pinch it. The kids love it, and the other brands are worried because Camel is doing well in that illegal but essential market segment.)

5. Bain wasn’t just helping companies figure out how to provide cigarettes to consumers; it was helping them figure out how to lobby against regulations that demonstrably save lives.

6. Yes, I would support a ban on cigarettes, or at least cigarettes made from standard tobacco rather than TSN-free tobacco or containing additives. Current smokers could be weaned on to e-cigarettes, which provide nicotine but not “flavor” (i.e., particulates and carcinogens).

When 90% of current smokers say that they wish they’d never started, it takes a really quite astounding act of intellectual stubbornness to insist that “freedom” means the right to tempt children into a habit that they will later wish they didn’t have, and that will eventually kill about half of them unless they go through the unpleasant process of quitting. (Yes, smoking doubles mortality at every age.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

24 thoughts on “The ethics of selling cigarettes”

  1. It makes perfect sense. We’ve done so poorly in reducing cigarette use with tobacco as a legal drug, we might as well ban it. After all, that’s worked really well for illicit drugs.

  2. “Most adult smokers are hooked. Their smoking isn’t fully “voluntary” anymore. Yes, they could quit; most have tried at least once, and failed. The median number of unsuccessful quit attempts before success is five. Some people never lose the craving: they will have intrusive thoughts about smoking for the rest of their lives.”

    Most people suffering from obesity are hooked on food. Their eating isn’t fully “voluntary” anymore. Yes, they could diet; most have tried at least once, and failed. The median number of unsuccessful diets is . Some people never lose the urge to gorge themselves: they will have intrusive thoughts about gorging for the rest of their lives.

  3. “Most adult smokers are hooked. Their smoking isn’t fully “voluntary” anymore. Yes, they could quit; most have tried at least once, and failed.”

    What point are you trying to make here? That smokers are somehow ‘possessed’ and cannot quit?

    Are you aware just how many tens of millions of Americans have quit smoking since the first Surgeon General’s Report?

    In 1986 it was estimated to be 37 million people:

    Do you actually believe that mere exposure to a chemical has the power to rob people of their self-control and an otherwise normal existence?

    1. The “pretty obvious” point he’s making is that, given the choice between selling something that is bad for people but easy to give up, and selling something that is bad for people but hard to give up, selling the hard-to-give-up thing (while denying its badness and marketing initially to groups whose cognitive power is reduced) would be the less-ethical choice.

      1. I believe that nicotine is an important component of tobacco smoke. I also believe that marketing and what people believe smoking does (i.e. relax, reward and unwind), feelings of exclusion, isolation and stress are ultimately more powerful determinants of an addiction to cigarettes that mere exposure to nicotine (which by itself is a weak reinforcer ( see Fagerström for more: )

        Also see the myth of drug induced addiction:

  4. 6. Instead, we seem to have something of a war on E cigarettes, and other non-cancer causing smoking substitutes. Which leads me to conclude that a lot of the objection to smoking is based on prudery or anti-hedonism, as much as concern for health.

    1. If 90% of smokers would like to quit, I’m dubious as to how much hedonism is really going on here.

      1. I didn’t say that there’s a lot of hedonism involved in smoking. Just that anti-hedonism is involved in attacks on it. Otherwise the non-cancer causing alternatives to smoking wouldn’t face so much resistance. The opposition focuses on getting people to stop doing things like that, not on finding a way they can do them without dying.

        It’s hard to explain the whole war on drugs without concluding that some people influencing public policy are motivated by anti-hedonism.

      2. It’s the sort of pleasure one gets from scratching an itch. Plato’s leaky jar and all that.

  5. Mark: You are asking libertarians to be logically consistent and have intellectual integrity by facing up to the facts that the 7 million people who die from smoking each year on this planet are not free, neither are the 800 million addicted smokers who for the moment are still alive.

    I respect the effort, but doubt you will get any takers unfortunately. Libertarianism in the US once was concerned about loss of freedom caused by corporate power (e.g., the legal tobacco industry), but today they generally take the view that if government stubs your toe, it’s a human rights violation, but if a company chops off your legs, it’s just the freedom of the market at play.

    1. Yes, and if this were limited to *adults* making those choices I’d even agree with you. However, the vast majority of those who become addicted to tobacco do so while they are minors. Given this phenomenon, discussing it as an issue of consenting adults choosing to harm themselves is nonsensical.

  6. I hope you’re either very young, or very old, as your argument is quite reductionist and faces the subject (which indeed is very complex) from a very naive perspective. Neither the tobacco companies are the devil, or the consumers are helpless trapped individuals with no free will. But there is much, much more than that. Banning? Look at cocaine use. Less harmful cigarettes? They’ve been rejected by consumers on trial tests. The truth is that smoking is one of many self-destructive habits we as humans have and need.

    1. Humans “need” cigarettes? My oh my what a childish reduction! I can’t imagine how humans survived for a million years before the discovery of tobacco. Or are you a creationist too?

  7. I really feel like the most effective policy solution here would just be to prevent the mass production of cigarettes. Allow people to grow and sell tobacco and allow people to smoke it if they’re so inclined, but no mass production. Make everyone roll their own. It’d make smoking much more of a complicated process (as it should be) and make everyone much more conscious of what they’re doing.

  8. Hah! This post hits on the necessary issues that needs to be dealt with. I personally have started smoking when i was 14 and at that time it was hell easy to get supplies which made it relevantly easy to get addicted. One more fact that annoys me is the number 5, I hardly knew about this… Oh well, when you earn a lot, it becomes tentatively easy to be above many things. Though also I’m one of the 90% who wished to have never started smoking, it’s too late to keep looking back at the past. If only these ethics was discovered sooner, maybe it would have made the difference. 🙂

    Kinds Regards,

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