Price hikes making Greeks put out their cigarettes

05/01/2012

The only thing Greeks love more than smokes is ignoring laws against them.

By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 05/01/12

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Increased tax on cigarettes gave better results than a smoking ban in Greece, dropping the number of smokers by 16%. [Reuters]

After five failed smoking bans in the last decade, the rate of smoking in Greece -- among the highest in the world and number one on the list for number of cigarettes smoked per capita – has slowly begun to decline, thanks largely to a slew of tax hikes, including on tobacco, as the country struggles through an economic crisis.

Even while Greeks continue to flout prohibitions on smoking in public places, businesses and cafes, and light up with impunity almost anywhere, the number of those puffing away has fallen 16% in the last year, Gregory Connolly, a Harvard professor and director of the Centre for Global Tobacco Control told an anti-smoking conference in Athens, where he presented a report on The Greek Tobacco Epidemic.

Connolly said the tax hikes from 19% to 23% on cigarettes has been a major factor, but that public awareness campaigns about the dangers of tobacco have begun to make a mark, despite limited support from the Ministry of Health. It is allowing casinos and large nightclubs to bypass the smoking ban and buy licenses that allow larger smoking areas, in a bid to raise 40 million euros, a dent in the country's 346 billion-euro debt.

Connolly is considered a scourge by the tobacco industry, which he consistently attacks as a money-making killing machine. He said 19,000 Greeks die annually from smoking.

He told SETimes "The real enemy is foreign tobacco companies," that he said are targeting Greece's young. "They are sending a message that smoking is cool, but it's killing them," he said of the victims.

One of those attending the three-day event, Kyriake Vlachandrea, said she's seen that first-hand as a midwife and public school nurse. "I see children who cough and I try to tell them it's the cigarettes," she told SETimes. Some, she said, are 13 or younger. "They say they try to stop but they have peer pressure and problems in life."

The event and report were sponsored by a Greek American crusader against smoking in Greece, philanthropist George Behrakis, who made a fortune in the pharmaceutical industry in Massachusetts and developed a popular anti-asthma drug.

His cousin, University of Athens Associate Professor Panagiotis Behrakis, who, with Connolly is a co-principal investigator of the Hellenic Action through Research against Tobacco (HEART) project, told SETimes that he's heartened by the decline in the rate of smoking but acknowledged, "It's difficult to evaluate whether it's the pricing or the whole campaign that resulted in Greece."

Despite hikes in tobacco taxes, the average price of a pack of cigarettes in Greece still ranks among the lowest in Europe, however, at 3.88 euros, according to the British-based Tobacco Manufacturers Association.

Behrakis said the task has been made more difficult by the government's resistance to enforce the smoking ban, despite 70% support for it.

"We know that [the law against] smoking in closed areas is not being implemented and there are violations of the law every day," he said. Behrakis said he senses a lack of political will to take on restaurants, tavernas, bars, casinos and nightclubs. He said the government should raise the price of tobacco products by 2 euros, which he said would generate an additional 440 million euros in taxes per year and reduce the number of smokers by 460,000 and save on health costs.

The report found that the average consumption of cigarettes by Greece's 3.8 million smokers has fallen from 3,055 per capita in 2008 to 2,458 in 2010, but that total usage was still 27.7 billion.

"This figure is still of epidemic proportions," the report noted, and even the anti-smoking activists said little can be done to stop rampant smoking in areas Greeks traditionally prefer, especially cafes. In 25 years, it projected that 500,000 people will have died preventable deaths at the current rate. Even now, 53 Greeks die every day from smoking-related diseases. The group Smoke Free Greece said those conditions account for 14.4% of the total health budget, or more than 3.4 billion euros a year -- 9.4 million a day.

In January, the government promised another crackdown and said hundreds of inspectors would comb establishments to make sure smoking had stopped, but it never materialised. This was partly because of reluctance to impose fines of up to 10,000 euros on bar and restaurant owners and 500 euros on smokers, and resistance from business.

"This decision comes at a time when the economy is in deep recession; it will lead to shutting down thousands of businesses, and at least 80,000 jobs will be lost," Yiorgos Kavathas, general secretary of the Greek Restaurant Owners Federation said then. There has been mostly symbolic enforcement since.

On August 30th, a year after the fifth smoking ban began, there were 30,878 complaints about violations, according to the Centre for Infectious Diseases (KEEL), which operates a telephone hotline informing citizens about the restrictions. About 27,260 were related to restaurants, bars and cafes, the smoking hot spots.

There were also 366 calls about smoking in state hospitals and 288 about teachers smoking in school. Still, the ministry said 50% of Greeks had cut back on smoking since the ignored ban started.

Frank Chaloupka, a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who spoke at the seminar about The Economics of Tobacco Control, said there is a correlation between higher prices and taxes and reduced smoking.

"People cut back when it gets too expensive," he told SETimes after his presentation. But he said it's critical to make people also understand their smoking is hurting or killing people who breathe in second hand smoke, a discovery made 30 years ago by Dr. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, who contributed to the new report.

"You have to make it clear how your smoking is affecting other people," Chaloupka said.

Athanassios Vozikis, a lecturer in the University of Piraeus's Department of Economic Science, told those attending the conference that there are many myths about smoking but, "There is only one truth -- it kills and it costs."

The conference may have been preaching to the choir of anti-smoking activists, but some said they felt enervated by the news that more Greeks are giving up the habit.

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"I'm not a smoker and none of my friends are, but a lot of people don't have enough self-esteem or can resist the addiction." She said they are discouraged by the failure of the smoking ban. "It's common in Greece to have laws that are not enforced because people do not love so much the government," Stefania Koustsilieri, 20, a college pharmacy student told SETimes.

Chaloupka is more optimistic, noting that rates have fallen in other European countries that have adopted tough no-smoking laws. "Who ever thought in France that people would give up smoking in cafes?" he said.

Kleon Antoniou, a noted jazz guitarist, says in the clubs where he works almost nightly, there's so much smoke it resembles an opium den, but that there is no attempt to enforce the ban. Owners fear a loss of customers just when they need the revenues most. He says he's unlikely to lessen his smoking either, unless prices climb much higher.

"Maybe when I light a cigarette I will think why I do and smoke less," he told SETimes. He was smoking when he said it.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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