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University of Basel

05 July 2021

Ban on cigarette sales fails to prevent smoking among young people

Young woman smoking a cigarette.
Hoped-for effect missed: Despite a sales ban of tabacco, young people in Switzerland don't smoke less. (Photo: Victoria Volkova, unsplash)

If you can’t buy cigarettes, you won’t start smoking – such is the thinking behind the ban on selling cigarettes to young people. A new Basel study for Switzerland has revealed, however, that while the ban does not make smoking more attractive, neither does it act as a significant deterrent.

Smoking continues to be widespread in Switzerland. Around 27 percent of the Swiss population currently smoke, and 9500 people die each year from the long-term effects of smoking. A ban on sales to young people is one of the many tobacco prevention measures undertaken in Switzerland at all levels of government. So far, there have been almost no systematic studies exploring how the ban affects the number of young smokers, and young people’s attitudes toward smoking.

The situation in Switzerland is ideal for examining the consequences of such a ban, however. Since 2006, for example, all cantons except Appenzell Innerrhoden and Schwyz have introduced bans on the sale of cigarettes to young people, either for under-16s or even for under-18s. Study authors Armando Meier, Reto Odermatt and Alois Stutzer, economists at the Universities of Basel and Lausanne, used the varying dates of introduction for comprehensive before-and-after comparisons. They calculated general national trends over time, such as the increase in cigarette prices.

The ban has little impact

Between 2001 and 2016, more than 80 000 young people under the age of 21 were surveyed throughout Switzerland about their cigarette consumption and attitudes toward smoking. The survey data shows that the sales ban has achieved no more than a minimal reduction in tobacco consumption. The small and statistically indistinct negative average effect seems to be driven by those cantons that ban sales to the under-18s.

The authors have not observed a lower probability of smoking in the longer term for young adults who were unable to buy cigarettes as adolescents as a result of the ban. It is therefore highly likely from a statistical perspective that the study can exclude a large average reduction in tobacco consumption due to a ban on cigarette sales to adolescents.

The authors also state that smoking and smokers are not considered cooler by their peers today than before the introduction of the ban. In fact, smoking tends to become less attractive as a result – but with no measurable influence on smoking behavior. At the same time, the measures also fail to ensure that young people perceive smoking as more harmful.

Cigarettes from friends

«One possible explanation for the low impact is that young people find ways around the ban,» says Alois Stutzer. On the one hand, the survey data indicates that young people indeed buy cigarettes less often from a kiosk when sales are banned. On the other hand, however, access to cigarettes nevertheless seems to be relatively unaffected overall, with young people obtaining cigarettes through their friends instead.

This bypassing behavior seems to be an important reason for the low effectiveness of the ban. «We should therefore be aware that bans on cigarette sales – if they are not backed up with police enforcement measures – are unlikely to contribute to a significant reduction in smoking prevalence,» says Stutzer.

This stands in contrast to the experience with alcohol, where a ban on sales to young people has been effective. «Future studies should therefore address the possible reasons for this discrepancy,» write the authors of the study.

Original article

Meier Armando N., Odermatt Reto und Stutzer Alois 
Tobacco Sales Prohibition and Teen Smoking.
Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (2021), 
doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2021.06.002

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