The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The objective of EU tobacco policy is to reduce the harm caused by smoking, by informing and warning consumers of the dangers of cigarettes, by making packs and promotion less attractive, and making the product less available. The tragedy is the law of unintended consequences. Everything the EU is doing is making life easier for counterfeiters and contraband artists.
The plan is to require all cigarette brands to carry ever-more grotesque and obscene pictures of cancerous lesions caused by smoking; to remove branding from cigarettes, allowing no more than a small brand name in a standard font and colour; and to ban promotion, merchandising and retail display of cigarettes.
Meantime I have on my desk a pack of Jin Ling cigarettes, which are made not (as you might suppose) in China, but in Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg. This is an orphan Russian enclave, separated from the main Russian territory and enclosed by Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. It is bandit country, mafia territory, calling to mind the lines of Kipling in another context:
“…. where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain’t no Ten Commandments,
And a man can raise a thirst”.
Jin Ling is a brand specifically designed to be contraband. It is, of course, not subject to the comprehensive health and safety rules that apply, say, to Benson & Hedges. It does, however, have a very clear health warning on the pack (though no obscene pictures). The only problem is that the health warning, clear and explicit as it is, appears only in Cyrillic script! Any similarity to the pack of the Camel brand is, of course, entirely intentional.
This is no small operation. Industry sources suggest that production of Jin Ling cigarettes amounts to as much as two billion sticks a year — or ten million packs of 200. Remarkably, this contraband brand has made the top ten in the German market.
Perversely, the measures that the EU is taking are a gift to brands like Jin Ling. The packaging may not be great, but it’s a lot more appealing than a picture of a cancerous neck goitre (that’s what it looks like, anyway — maybe my diagnosis is not perfect). The virtual disappearance of branded cigarettes from legitimate retail outlets will help to promote informal and illegal distribution channels. Jin Ling is cheaper than official duty-paid brands, so more attractive to young smokers. And because it’s not subject to the same regulation, it may be more dangerous.
The EU makes a big issue of protecting copyright and Intellectual Property, and of blocking contraband. Yet its policies in this case are having the opposite effect.
The whole issue of tobacco is so toxic in the EU institutions that the industry finds it difficult to talk to the Commission or the parliament at all. There have been efforts in the parliament to prevent industry access entirely. This is extraordinary for a product which is legal, and an industry which quite properly and legally employs many thousands of European citizens, including those at the Imperial Tobacco factory in Nottingham, in the East Midlands.
Ironically the industry is also keen to protect intellectual property and to stamp out contraband, and would be happy to talk to the EU institutions about methods to minimise harm while supplying, in a safe and orderly way, the needs of those consumers who choose to smoke. But Europe isn’t listening. This is a scandal. There is no other industry that the EU institutions would simply refuse to talk to. And the consequence is more harm to European consumers (and jobs), not less.
Disclaimer: I personally haven’t smoked for thirty-five years, and I thoroughly dislike the habit. But I believe that those of my constituents who choose to smoke also have rights.