Germany and the Love of Cigarettes
Walk around the streets of Germany long enough and you will inevitably come across a cigarette machine. Whether you happen to be in the smallest of villages or the largest of cities, the streets of Germany are littered with them. They serve a practical purpose, in a country where the shops close at 8 or on a Sunday, do not open. This is in sharp contrast to the UK, which has increased restrictions year on year, with most shops now selling cigarettes behind a set of non-transparent sliding doors, turning the process of buying cigarettes into a weird version of Guess Who?:
“do you have this brand?”
“how about this brand?”
“yes, but only in menthol.”
Obviously the reason that the UK has clamped down so heavily on smokers and smoking is that it is estimated to cost the NHS between £5-6 billion a year to treat people with smoking related diseases. Even though taxes on smoking bring in roughly £12 billion a year, recent studies suggest that smoking could cost tax payers up £14 billion a year once you include factors such as lost productivity at work or costs from fire services attending to fires caused by cigarettes.
In the UK, the NHS has a duty of care for everyone, which includes educating people about their health, but also to save money for treatment of diseases that cannot be so easily prevented. It spends large amounts of money every year in promoting healthy living, advertising about the dangers of smoking, drinking or eating poorly. Some might describe these activities as evidence of a “nanny state”, but it is an essential part of what the NHS does. Germany operates a different healthcare model from the UK, which tries to find a middle ground between public and private healthcare. Although there is an affordable public option available to all, it is common for those who can afford it to pay for private healthcare. The German healthcare system, as well numerous other reasons (culture of sports clubs, differing drinking cultures, localised fruit and vegetable production, cheaper prices in supermarkets) means that the average German resident will see less health advice while on public transport or on television.
What German resident are exposed to quite heavily is cigarette advertising. Although banned in the UK for many years, cigarette adverts can still be seen on billboards throughout Germany, with little restrictions. In fact, Germany is the only EU member state to still allow cigarette advertising outdoors and in cinemas. Recent attempts to ban the practice appear to have come to nothing, despite concerted efforts from both major parties in the Bundestag. Again the reasons are complicated, with opposition coming from The German Advertising Association who argue that punitive measures against cigarette billboards would go against EU free market rules. The organisation’s managing director Manfred Parteina declared last year that a comprehensive ban would “Suspend the basic rules of free markets” and that “A complete cap on advertising to adult customers puts the sector outside the system of the market economy,”.
The German Advertising Association aside, it is in reality the power of the cigarette lobby in Germany that appears to be preventing any ban coming before German politicians. Accusations of cigarette companies sponsoring political events and even of drafting legislation have been around for many years. Attempts last year by politicians to put a ban up for a vote were criticised by the CEO of the German Cigarette Association, Jan Mücke, who claimed that it would burden the German economy with far reaching rules that had no clear end point and could eventually be used to prohibit alcohol or high sugar products.
It would, perhaps be easier to accept the arguments of the German Cigarette Association if it were not for the attempts of cigarette companies to take advantage of the freedom that comes from unrestricted outdoor advertising. When I first arrived in Germany in 2011, every billboard, bus shelter or Litfaßsäule seemed to have posters displaying only one word “Maybe”. These adverts were clearly for Marlboro, evidenced by the health warnings and small logo featured on the posters. Aside from that, there was nothing else to explain what “Maybe” could be referencing. Only a few weeks after these posters appeared they were replaced with an explanation. “Don’t be a maybe” was the new declaration, with different messages stating “Maybe never fell in love” or “Maybe never wrote a song” next to inspirational photographs of young men and women living their lives to the fullest or at least what cynical marketing executives believe to be the fullest. One even suggested that feminism was part of the Marlboro message with “Maybe will never be her own boss”.
By 2013, Germany banned the “Maybe” campaign for its attempts to promote smoking to a younger generation. A report from seven anti-tobacco organisations stated that the campaign "exploits adolescents' search for identity by suggesting that – in the face of uncertainty – they should be a Marlboro smoker" and furthermore:
“PMI (Philip Morris International, owners of Marlboro) claims that 'Be Marlboro' only targets legal-age smokers, campaign advertisements from around the world clearly focus on youth-oriented images and themes that appeal to teenagers and feature young, attractive models partying, falling in love, adventure travelling and generally being 'cool.”
By the time Germany had actually banned the campaign it had been running for almost two years, but in some ways it was better late than never.
The obvious success of the “Maybe” campaign has in turn sparked imitators in the world of cigarette advertising. Walking through the streets of Germany today, people are bombarded by images of bearded hipsters, punks or wistful looking twenty-somethings, accompanied by inane tag lines that appear to have come from a marketing intern looking up ‘inspirational quotes’ on Pinterest. One suggests “People are boring. Until you meet them” which is exactly the dubious, pseudo-philosophical bullshit you expect to hear from a first year undergrad student who has only recently realised the mind bending powers of cannabis. I know, I used to be him. No one needs that kind of reminiscence on a 7am commute to work.
Germany may have banned advertising cigarettes on the internet and in magazines, but it was done so reluctantly and with as much foot dragging as possible. Packaging does have warnings of the effects of smoking, but it will also be a long time, if at all, before Germany adopts plain packaging as in the UK. Frankly, this cannot happen soon enough, if only to give interns and myself a break from the drug induced musings of idiots on the internet.