Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Unintended Consequences of A Policy Change

I was just turning 40 when the issue over smoking on airline flights reached a tipping point and then banned in the U.S. in November of 1989, six months after we jumpstarted the community destination marketing for Durham, North Carolina.

So until recently, I assumed the continued presence of ashtrays on the doors of airliner lavatories merely dated the age of the aircraft.

But federal law, while prohibiting smoking inflight, including the levy of stiff fines for lighting up in the “john,” still requires the installation of ashtrays there on new aircraft as a safety precaution.

Far too often though, prohibitions such as smoking bans fail to include careful consideration of unintended, but costly consequences.

In mid-2012 Durham, NC, where I live, enacted what at the time was the most comprehensive smoking ban in North Carolina and possibly the Southeast.  Soon, workers quickly removed all ashtrays for cigarette butts from the bus stops.

The logic was that leaving them in place would encourage smoking but instead, taking them away has resulted in these areas being littered with butts.  But studies show that merely leaving these receptacles in place may have had little impact.

In 2008, a study was conducted, in part, to observe how smokers dispose of cigarette and cigar butts.  Only 15% used the ashtray while 40 flicked them on the ground including into shrubs while 27% left the site with the butt in hand.

During intercepts, self-reported litterers reported the greatest likelihood of littering occurring with cigarette butts.

Even more telling, smokers were also nearly twice as likely overall to litter as non-smokers, even when cigarette butts were excluded from the measure.

One wonders why anti-littering campaigns have failed to use this information to better target efforts just as agencies have learned to use animal abuse around a home as an indication that domestic abuse is likely there too?

Cities began to ban smoking on public transportation in 1936, more than three decades after several states had tried to do so and while tobacco companies were busy advertising how good smoking was for your teeth.

At the time, according to advertising research conducted for Fortune Magazine, 53% of adult American males including 66% of those under 40 smoked.

As of three months ago, according to the Blueshift Research Trends Tracker, 84.3% of Americans don’t smoke including 55% who have never smoked according to the CDC.

Of the 15% who do (13.4% daily,) 53% smoke cigarettes and 26% smoke cigars, yet tobacco products represent 38% of all litter along roadways, 23% of which comes from pedestrians.

It is only one of the ways smokers still shift billions of dollars of costs off onto those who don’t.

About 29 of every 100 adults who live below the poverty level are smokers, a rate much higher than those not in poverty.

The rate is also much higher among those who are disabled or work limited as it also is for LGBT Americans.

Recent studies show that smoking is increasing within poorer neighborhoods while it is disappearing in affluent neighborhoods.  report on CNN a year ago noted that “the chronic stress of poverty drives unhealthy behaviors.”

Societal stress may be the reason higher rates of smoking are also found in the other groups as well.

Based on the findings of the behavioral analysis of litterers, researchers have begun to look closely at the links between depression, smoking and littering in poor neighborhoods.

The 4% of litterers who admit doing it on purpose say it was just because they were having a bad day.

Depression, according to experts, is not about feeling sad or mad as much as it is about not caring anymore; a lack of vitality.

Its association with poverty is also why so-called sin-taxes to discourage smoking and lower its burden on those who don’t, may be too blunt an instrument to root it out entirely.

There also appears to be a direct link between cigarette smuggling and the level of taxation on cigarettes purchases, up to half of all cigarettes consumed in some states.

Banning tobacco makes sense, but it makes equally good sense to examine whether removing ashtrays or leaving smokers no options such as in airports yields hidden costs such as litter.

This may be why in Utah, where resident smokers are now only 9 out of 100 adults, there are special, high exhaust chambers in the Salt Lake Airport, intended for visitors as well as residents and paid for, in part, by a reduction in litter and illegal smoking elsewhere.

All of this is to say that bans on products such as smoking require thoughtful execution.

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