* My column in BusinessWorld
, January 16, 2019.
“To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and
the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our
liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much
“The Pretence of Knowledge”, Nobel Prize lecture Dec. 11, 1974
Among the stories we hear and read in the debates on
higher tobacco/alcohol tax, smoking/vaping ban, are that 1.) smoking prevalence
remains high and rising, 2.) vaping is not a smoking-cessation tool but
smoking-enhancement, and, 3.) more government taxation and prohibitions are
good to protect public health.
These are all myths and not consistent with facts. Here
are the numbers and reasons why.
On No. 1, in most countries, smoking prevalence is
declining. There has been a big decline of 10-11 percentage points for South
Korea, Japan, and the Philippines in a span of 16 years. And as of 2015, only
2% of Philippine adults and 4.5% of youths were users of smokeless tobacco or
e-cigarettes, vaping products (see Table).
On No. 2, vaping products have actually become smoking
substitutes or smoking-cessation tools, leading to a decline in smoking
prevalence of five to 10 percentage points in the Philippines, Malaysia, and
Thailand as a portion of their smokers shift to smokeless, non-burning nicotine
A “gateway theory” that vaping leads to smoking in young
people is just a disproven hypothesis. In early 2019, a UK anti-smoking
charity, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), released a report showing that
vaping remains uncommon among young people and is almost exclusively confined
to current or past smokers, and that most teen vaping is experimental and
Recently, the President, supported by the Department of
Health, ordered a ban on vaping in public places. Government over-regulation
follows the famous Newton’s third law of motion: “for every action there is an
equal and opposite reaction.” Restated it becomes “for every government
intervention and taxation, there is an equal and opposite distortion.”
Seven examples and cases below show why No. 3 above is
One, more prohibition means more corruption.
Prostitution, drugs, certain gambling, gun running, etc. are prohibited, not
just restricted and taxed in the Philippines. And these prohibited activities
and products are all around. That implies that the police and government
officials themselves, local and national, allow their proliferation in exchange
for big bribes, other financial and political favour.
Two, more smuggling. The National Committee on
Intellectual Property Rights (NCIPR) reported that full year 2018 seizures of
pirated and counterfeit goods jumped to P23.6 billion. Of this, fake or
smuggled cigarettes were P20.3 billion or 86% of total. Higher tobacco taxes
under the TRAIN law of 2017 resulted in many smokers buying cheaper, smuggled
Three, recent cases of coconut wine or lambanog poisoning
in the Philippines. At least 23 people died due to suspected methanol
poisoning, with over 500 hospitalized. As branded alcohol becomes more
expensive due to more taxes, more drinkers shift to cheaper, untaxed, unbranded
alcohol like lambanog, where products can include chemicals and prohibited
Four, the Singapore vape ban has been in place for two to
three years now. But instead of killing vaping, it sent it underground. There
were seizures of $30,000 worth of illegal e-cigarettes in September, another
$66,000 worth in November 2019.
Five, with misregulations around e-cigarettes in the US,
illicit pods containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil together with Vitamin E
acetate as a thickening agent have become widely available. Around 55 people
have died after using these black market products rather than standard vape
Six, when I was in southern Sweden in 2003 for two
months, I noticed and read that Swedes who wanted cheaper booze would travel to
Denmark to buy lots of beer and alcohol because Sweden’s alcohol taxes are very
high. The same in Scotland after “minimum unit pricing” on alcohol was
introduced in 2018 — Scot drinkers would go to England across the border to get
Seven, in the UK, smoking data released after the
implementation of plain packaging for tobacco products shows that for the first
time in seven years, the smoking rate has risen. Illicit and smuggled tobacco
became much easier because of the ease of copying the packs and cheaper prices.
The same thing happened in Australia after its plain packaging policy was
instated in 2012 — illegal tobacco use came in higher starting 2013, shown in
Friedrich Hayek has reiterated that “all-knowing”
pretense and central planning of a nanny state can backfire. Thus, the state
should step back from over-regulations and prohibitions. People own their
bodies, not the state or NGOs. More state prohibitions only send people to seek
illicit, even dangerous products and activities.