Germany makes €14bn in taxes from smokers, so a ban is unlikely
by Justin Stares
Germany is bottom of the class when it comes to clamping down on tobacco advertising and smoking in public - PublicServiceEurope.com attempts to find out why a state that is normally seen as a leader in Europe lags behind when it comes to this important health issue
Think of Germany and what comes to mind? An economic powerhouse? A safe haven for investors? A shining example of good government? While all of the above may be true, Germany has another trait that is largely unknown to outsiders. It is a fact much less likely to end up in the country's marketing material: it is a smoker's oasis. In much of Europe, the smoking debate has moved on to cigarette packaging. After achieving a ban on advertising and smoking in public, the no-smoking lobby now wants all pretty cigarette packets replaced with plain, bland wrapping to make them less attractive to children and adolescents.
In progressive Germany, meanwhile, the debate remains stuck in the early years of the century. Keen-eyed visitors will notice that billboard advertising for cigarettes is still allowed. The photo accompanying this article was taken in Trier, near the border with Luxembourg, earlier this month. The town's bus stop shelters are plastered with such adverts.
"We are the last country in Europe to allow direct advertising in the street," says Martina Pötschke-Langer, head of the unit for cancer prevention at the German Cancer Research Centre. Cinemas in Germany still run cigarette advertising after 6pm, Pötschke-Langer tells PublicServiceEurope.com. Other forms of marketing are permitted at hospitality events and rock concerts. While handing out free cigarettes is not allowed, it is legal to post free cigarettes to someone's home address or to hand out cigarillos or roll-your-own tobacco. Brand diversification – such as the sale of Marlboro boots or jackets - is also permitted. The tobacco industry in Germany regularly provides caterers with branded ashtrays, parasols, candle-holders, blankets and other knickknacks.
"Although there is a general ban on tobacco advertising on the internet in Germany, there is a legal grey area and the tobacco manufacturers and dealers use the internet to promote their business," says the German Cancer Research Centre. "Tobacco companies have set up business websites with detailed information about the company, its philosophy and its products. There are no reliable access controls to ensure that only adults visit these websites."
When it comes to smoking in public, Germany is a myriad of exemptions, partial bans and poorly enforced prohibitions. "A comprehensive ban on smoking in bars and restaurants has so far only been implemented in Bavaria and Saarland; the remaining 14 states allow several exemptions to their regulations," reveals the research centre in a paper published last year. In the town of Schwerin, in the region of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, a remarkable 93 per cent of bars still allow smoking - researchers found. "Anyone looking for a place to have a beer in the evening here without being forced to inhale second-hand smoke will likely be searching for quite a while," the report notes. German restaurants, too, have not cracked down on the habit to the same extent as elsewhere in Europe. In Hanover, 30 per cent of all eateries reportedly cater to smokers.
For those under the impression that both smoking in public and advertising were banned by Brussels diktat, this never actually occurred. European Union law-makers banned advertising that has a "cross-border" impact - at international sporting events, for example. Member states remain sovereign within their borders. Die-hard smokers - there are still a fair few - might rejoice in Germany's decision not to adopt the interfering 'nanny state' policies of largely smoke-free countries such as the United Kingdom.
But Pötschke-Langer says the reality in Germany is more prosaic. "The tobacco industry is able to put politicians under enormous pressure," she says. "Tobacco is the most powerful industry after the weapons industry." Germany is after all the biggest market in the EU, she points out. Germany-based tobacco manufacturers and exporters funnel €14bn in taxes into state coffers every year. "There are long-term relationships between the tobacco industry, the politicians and the parties," Pötschke-Langer says. "The ministry of health is not as important as the ministry of economic and financial affairs."
While big tobacco is still very much alive and kicking in Germany, no-smoking campaigners do have reason for some optimism. Despite all the advertising and the coy marketing, smoking among the country's youth has dropped sharply. Among German adults, smoking rates are roughly similar to those in neighbouring countries. The industry, for its part, is keeping its head down. "Unfortunately I cannot share a position on advertising as the issue at the EU-level is settled by the directive and the council recommendation," says Antonella Pederiva, secretary general of the Brussels-based Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers. "You may revert to our national associations for the specifics".
Meanwhile, Ralf Leinweber, head of corporate communications for British American Tobacco in Germany defends the status quo - adding: "Cigarettes are a legal product and it should be possible to advertise for tobacco products. Given, however, the nature of the product as potentially harmful for health, our tobacco advertising is only focussed on adult consumers; people under the age of 18 are not at all a target group of our marketing activities. In our international marketing standards, we clearly define the rules for responsible, adult smokers only." There is no advertising around schools, Leinweber tells PublicServiceEurope.com. Models used in advertising must be at least 25 years old, he says. Well, that is alright then.
How big is the illicit tobacco trade in Europe?
Some 10 per cent of cigarettes smoked in Europe are counterfeit or contraband, creating serious health concerns for citizens and major financial headaches for industry and governments - claims Daniel A. Witt
There is of course the historic hangover of the negative attitude to smoking and tobacco by Adolf Hitler. This is well documented - e.g. smokefree - and undoubtedly affected the willingness of subsequent German governments to take up the war on tobacco.
Tom Bayes - London, England
A rather cynical interpretation of the reason for Germany's moderate policy on smoking. After smoking bans will come drinking bans, then bans on motoring and fatty foods etc. Everybody will have to make great sacrifices to appease the self-proclaimed gods of prohibition. Perhaps Germany and Holland should be emulated as examples of tolerant societies. As Mark Twain said: "Everything in moderation, including moderation."
George Turner - London
What about the healthcare cost to Germans for tobacco use? In 2003, a study placed the cost in excess of $21bn.
Ches Hanson - USA