Tobacco’s road

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The authorities’ longstanding love-hate relationship with smoking has had decidedly more of the latter. King James I called it a “custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless”.

Around the same time, harsh proscriptions were put on it by the Ottoman empire, Ming dynasty and Russian Orthodox church. Yet a stroll down the streets of Istanbul, Beijing or Moscow today is still clouded by plenty of smoke.

Even in America, where tobacco users in its largest city must pay $10 a pack, huddle in doorways and accept a social pariah-like status, tobacco’s hold is surprisingly resilient.

So it is fair to be sceptical that a vote by the US Senate to allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco is the industry’s death knell. It survived a 160 per cent federal excise tax increase earlier this year, as well as $206bn in fines agreed a decade ago.

To be sure, cigarette sales have slipped – from 4,300 per capita annually in 1965 to 1,700 now in the US – but leaders such as Altria, Reynolds American and Lorillard continue to be highly profitable. FDA regulation might even help them at the expense of upstart brands as more onerous marketing restrictions appear.

Tobacco was a bane well before there was an FDA but it has been a boon to governments, too. Regulating a product that generates such tax revenues out of existence is not easy. Nor is cajoling a population to quit through health warnings and advertising bans. If beatings and the threat of eternal damnation did not do the trick, then nothing will.

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