Some Slight Freedom of Speech in Canada
By David Henderson
Last month, I spent about 18 days at my cottage in Canada. I have a few friends there who smoke cigarettes and over the last few years I’ve brought back empty cigarette packages with the plan to post about them on EconLog. I’ve never got around to it until now.
The typical cigarette package has on it, prominently, a picture of one of the most horrible consequences of smoking cigarettes for years. See the top cigarette pack in the picture above. The cigarette companies are required by law to show those pictures. The idea, presumably, is to make people so disgusted that they won’t buy them. Whether it works I don’t know. My guess is that it works on the margin.
Anyway, last month, I was visiting two neighbors who smoke and one of them had the bottom cigarette package in the picture above. I noticed how clean it was: no government warnings, no awful pictures.
I asked him where he got it. He said that a woman in a bar sold it to him. Can you guess where it was sold originally? On a First Nations reserve in Canada. The federal government has less power there and so it can’t legally require cigarette sellers on the reserve to carry those pictures or negative messages.
We normally think of a government denying freedom of speech by legally prohibiting someone from speaking. But just as important, and possibly more important, is a government denying freedom of speech by requiring people to say something that they would rather not.
So there’s slightly more freedom of speech in Canada than I had thought.
Postscript: One thing that surprised me years ago, given how long the government’s propaganda campaign has been going, is the absence of a thriving aftermarket for special cigarette cases that can hold 25 cigarettes, the number in a typical pack. But the reason is possibly self-selection. The people badly turned off by the message are no longer buying cigarettes or never bought them. The ones who keep buying the cigarettes either don’t care or are only mildly annoyed and so they don’t bother going through the hassle of transferring the cigarettes to another container.
Alan Goldhammer, in the first comment below, asks a question that I should have answered in the original post. Canadian governments tax cigarettes heavily. It turns out, though, that contrary to what I had thought, the really heavy taxes are at the provincial level. Here are the rates for Ontario.