No smoking

Cultural and behavioural change can happen. Think about smoking, how it was stigmatised, especially when the non-smokers are affected by the smokers. People used to be able to endure others, and thought it normal to smoke indoors. But then gradually, rules changed and then smokers became marginalised. It switched from the default where smokers think they have every right to be puffing around to the extent they feel apologetic about smoking.

Research and studies demonstrating the harm to bodies helps. Not just the impact on the single individual taking the action, but also on those around him. It seemed very significant even though it can be just one individual himself. But it took decades to try and work on this problem. It took excise taxes and more of it. In Singapore there were ‘yellow box’ areas where you can smoke in various places.

It took somewhat coordinated efforts within a country, alongside corporate decisions, to take on smoking. Companies started realising that smokers were taking smoke breaks that on aggregate meant they spent less time working. Whether they were more productive in the hours they did work, I’m not sure. But there are even companies giving non-smoker extra days off to appreciate them for not smoking. Healthier employees also make for better work.

We can create culture and behavioural change even when there are big capitalist incentives not to. Tobacco companies do very well financially; and they have a ‘sticky’ product; in fact, it is so price inelastic that taxes on it can be very high and governments generate revenues without technically causing too much deadweight loss due to this lack of elasticity (in other words, quantity consumed is not distorted much by the tax).

Smoking has given us a great example of this change.