Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hauling Away the Cigarette Machines

England is banning cigarette machines starting today. The vending machines, long since confined to pubs, were hauled away over the last couple of days, and pub owners made sure of that. Cigarette machines will be as scarce as vending machines dispensing firearms, narcotics, and other dangerous materials, because starting today, the criminal penalties are similar. The ban takes effect in the rest of the United Kingdom next year. Significantly, the ban doesn’t impose any new restrictions on places where people can sell cigarettes — it is only the machines that are affected.

Where I live, the cigarette machines started to disappear around 1975. What happened before than was shocking by today’s standards. I particularly remember the scene of 8- and 10-year old children with a handful of coins running to the vending machine in the laundromat to buy packs of cigarettes for their parents. That was illegal even then, of course, but no one had ever heard of the law being enforced. Even schools had cigarette machines at that time. The machines were kept out of the sight of students, but that didn’t mean that students weren’t the primary customers. But then, in a decade, the cigarette machines vanished from schools and hospitals, and then from the laundromat, and finally were confined to seedy bars. I can’t remember the last time I saw a cigarette machine myself.

The U.K. government cites the importance of limiting sales of cigarettes to children. The smoking habit generally forms in the early teen years. Most smokers started when they were 12, 13, or 14 years old. Those of us who make it to the age of 16 without smoking a pack of cigarettes are unlikely to experiment with cigarettes (or, for that matter, cocaine) as adults.

But under-age customers provide only about one eighth of cigarette machine revenue, and reducing the impulse purchases that cigarette machines encourage may be an equally important effect. It is unconscious behavior that feeds addictions, and purchases can be surprisingly unconscious when there is little chance of another person observing the purchase. The best evidence of unconscious, addictive purchases from cigarette machines are the people who walk to a machine, make a purchase, and return to where they were before, and a few minutes later, have no recollection of having done so. Pubs can continue to sell cigarettes from behind the counter, but have complained in advance about the lost revenue. Sales will slow. The presence of mind it takes to make an over-the-counter purchase, which might involve a conversation with a person and has a much higher chance of being observed by bystanders, will be enough to prompt most customers to have second thoughts.

The U.K. government has to take a strong stand against tobacco because the government pays for health care. In the 20th century, about half of all health care costs were tobacco-related, and that proportion is decreasing mainly because fewer people are smoking.

Despite the outcry about the various new restrictions on tobacco over the last 30 years before each goes into effect, there is strikingly little public regret afterward. This will be the case again with the cigarette machines. Only the addicts will miss them, and for a few, the change will be enough for them to break the cycle of addiction.