The Journal of Public Policy

How did the EU ban on tobacco advertising transfer to some of the Swiss cantons?


By Philipp Trein, University of Lausanne

The image of smoking changed in recent decades. Instead of a well-deserved pleasure, cigarette consumption is considered to be above all a serious health hazard. In many countries, governments banned smoking in public places, increased cigarette taxes, and prohibited tobacco advertising and sponsoring of events by tobacco corporations. Limiting advertising and sponsoring is of particular importance to prevent minors from taking up smoking as role models – athletes, fashion models, or musicians – carry the image of tobacco brands to minors.

Similar to the United States, the member states of the Swiss Federation (cantons) possess some competences to regulate tobacco advertising. Unlike the US, where 46 States and the four largest tobacco manufacturers closed an agreement in 1998 (Master Settlement Agreement), according to which the tobacco corporations limited their advertising and sponsoring activities, only a few restrictions on tobacco advertising existed in Switzerland, before the 2000s. In 2000, the canton of Geneva banned tobacco advertising, and, two years later, the highest Swiss court confirmed the ban. Until 2010, 14 other cantons restricted tobacco advertising whereas the remaining subnational governments did not ban tobacco advertising. Only the canton of Obwalden introduced a regulation, in 2016.

How can we explain the variance in the adoption of tobacco advertising restrictions between 2000 and 2010, in the Swiss cantons? In a recent contribution in the Journal of Public Policy, I argue that one explanation for differences in the patterns of adopting tobacco-advertising restrictions by the cantons is the level of voters’ support for European integration. In short, higher support for European integration in the population makes it more likely that the cantonal government will take action to restrict tobacco advertising and less popular support for a deeper European integration decreases the likelihood for advertisement bans. Such an argument is plausible as the Swiss debate about tobacco-advertising bans connected the issue to international organizations, notably the European Union. Thus, cantonal policymakers used the degree of popular support for European integration as a signal – in other words, as a cognitive shortcut – to understand whether the population would be in support of tobacco advertising restrictions. The use of such signals by policymakers is common. Another example politicians use to estimate voters’ support for the government is the state of the national economy. My research about the adoption of tobacco advertising restrictions in Swiss cantons demonstrates that decision makers also use voters’ opinions about another constituency when deciding whether they should adopt a policy that is in place in another country.

This finding provides new insights about the diffusion of public policies, i.e. that governments take into account policies in other jurisdictions when deciding to adopt a certain policy. We knew already from diffusion research that there is a link between voters’ support for a policy “abroad” in another state and the adoption of this policy at home. In a way, voters like a policy abroad, policymakers at home put it on their agenda as a consequence thereof. The link between the adoption of tobacco advertising restrictions by Swiss cantons and support for European integration reveals another dimension that is important for the research on policy diffusion.