Czech Republic at Rear of Cigarette Pack

A notable topic covered lately in the Czech press is one of that country’s chief vices: smoking. That coverage does not really concern the associated damage to one’s health and the fact that anyone who can quit really should – the Czechs know about all that already. Rather, what has occurred is two recent developments with seemingly opposite meanings for the country’s smoking classes, but which in the end still basically leave them gasping for air.

What you would think is the good news is that the Czech government has announced plans to significantly raise the price of a pack of cigarettes over the next two years by raising its excise taxes. As the bona fide working-class publication that it is (prior to 1989, as Rudé právo it was the Communist government’s main official newspaper), Právo devotes its front-page article mainly to that (Cigarettes More Expensive by 13 Czech Crowns Over Two Years). The Czech government’s plan might seem similar to the deliberate, staged price-hikes French government recently imposed on (packs of) cigarettes sold there: from next April packs of Czech-made cigarettes are to be six crowns (Kc 6) more expensive (about 19 eurocents), from January, 2006, they will be a further Kc 7 more expensive (about 22 eurocents), and from January, 2007, they will be another Kc 8 to Kc 12 more expensive (25 eurocents to 38 eurocents), depending on how the Czech crown stands in relation to the euro then. (The Czechs may be new EU members, but they do not use the euro as their currency, of course. They are obliged eventually to do so, but only after they fulfill certain economic and fiscal criteria that they are today nowhere near to fulfilling.) Why does it depend on the Czech crown-euro relationship? Because ultimately the Czech government is instituting these excise tax-hikes because it is obliged under EU agreements to eventually match minimal European standards for the rate of cigarette tax, expressed in euros, which it has always heretofore been under.

Yet that comparison with the French experience is misleading. Those eurocent totals that the tax-rises translate to from Czech crowns might give you a clue: in the French case the rises were not by mere eurocents, but by whole euros. The deliberate aim of the French government was what you could even call “shock and awe,” to hit smokers hard and repeatedly in their pocket-books (two of the French tax-hikes were themselves separated by no more than six months’ time) to force through questions along the lines of “You sure you wouldn’t just rather quit?”


It would be a stretch to interpret the Czech governments recent announcement of upcoming hikes in quite the same way. In fact, a more-plausible interpretation would see the Czech government “kicking and screaming” as it pushed through the tax-hikes it just announced, remember, just to meet minimal EU standards. Outside observers are hard to fool, and the apparent progress against smoking in the Czech represented by those hikes ultimately gets little credit, as Lidové noviny explains in an article entitled EU Criticizes Cheap Cigarettes in the Czech Republic. The EU has a recent report out evaluating member states on their anti-tobacco policies and practices; of all member-states, the Czech Republic scores lowest except for Luxembourg. Reasons for this include not only what is still the relatively cheap prices for packs of cigarettes, compared to average incomes, but also apparent general reluctance to establish public places where non-smokers can find refuge from the clouds of smoke. Ireland has already banned smoking in bars and restaurants; Norway (you’re right, not an EU member) and Malta are about to do the same thing; but it’s hard to imagine any similar proposal producing anything in the Czech Republic than loud laughter, and indeed at least one such proposal has failed to pass Parliament.

Hana Lesenarova in Mladá fronta dnes provides further information about the Czech authorities’ reluctant non-smoking measures in Government Fights Rather Little Against Smoking. At the very top you see the anti-smoking ratings of all EU countries, and some that are not EU members but nonetheless near-by, and then the Czech Republic with its rating of 27 points (out of 100) ahead only of Luxembourg with 23. She provides further details about just who it is that is doing the criticizing, namely the European Network for the Prevention of Smoking, and NGO that undertook its survey of governments’ anti-smoking measures with funds provided by the EU. Lesenarova also gives further information about the criteria used to judge countries’ anti-smoking efforts, namely six criteria established by the World Bank. Most important of these was cigarette prices – whose raising is said to indeed be the the most effective way to cut down on the number of people smoking. But they also included permission or prohibition of smoking in public places such as restaurants and bars.


In both the LN and MFD articles an alternative resolution to the situation is specifically brought up: if government pressure on cigarettes and cigarette smokers in the Czech Republic increases, more and more sales will simply go to the black market, where any government-mandated price-hikes are simply ignored. The Právo article concludes with reassuring words from premier Stanislav Gross, that Czech border guards and customs officials have been given all the competence they need to nip any black market in smuggled-in cigarettes in the bud. But of course he would say that; the reality that finally becomes apparent may turn out to be a very different matter.

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