tobacco concessions

Hungarian physicians will also own tobacconist shops

Can you imagine C. Everett Koop, surgeon general of the United States between 1982 and 1989, refusing to take a stand on the question of smoking? Something like that happened in Hungary the other day when István Éger, president of the Hungarian Medical Association, refused to take sides on the question of whether it is ethical for a physician to own a tobacconist shop or shops. He claimed that “the question is too controversial.” He explained that, after all, owning a tobacconist shop “doesn’t mean that the physician will be sitting at the cash register.”  So, according to the author of the article that appeared in Index, “the Hungarian Medical Association doesn’t consider it inappropriate for a physician to profit from selling a product that can have devastating effects on his patients’ health.” By way of explanation Éger said the following, which the reporter found incomprehensible. “A healthy lifestyle is an important part of everybody’s life and Hungary is a pioneer in limiting tobacco use. It would be best for everybody if there were no tobacconist shops at all, but since that is not the case, we don’t want to take sides.”

I will try to shed some light on what might be behind the very cautious, perhaps even cowardly stance of the Hungarian Medical Association. First of all, quite a few physicians and their relatives won twenty-year concessions for tobacconist shops. By now it is an open secret that local Fidesz politicians decided who would have the opportunity  to operate a National Tobacconist Shop. The decision was based primarily on whether the applicant was a Fidesz supporter. And the percentage of Fidesz supporters within the medical community is extraordinary high. I might point out that traditionally the medical profession has been attracted to the political right. One mustn’t forget that the idea of the notorious numerus clausus was hatched at the medical school of Budapest in 1920.

Some of the doctors who received permission to operate tobacconist shops are rather important political actors within the medical profession. Most likely they would have raised hell with Éger had he taken a stronger stand. As it is, Éger’s position at the moment is rather shaky.

And finally, my hunch is that far too many physicians still smoke. The huge debate about smoking that occurred in the U.S.  in the 1970s has not yet been settled in Hungary.

It is true that smoking has decreased somewhat among men in the last ten years or so, but the number of women smokers has risen by 1% every year. I might add here that getting reliable and detailed data on smoking in Hungary is rather difficult. One problem when it comes to comparing data, let’s say, between Hungary and the United States is that while the U.S. numbers refer to the population of 18 years and over, most Hungarian data I found talked about smokers age 15 and over! According to a fairly recent summary published by the National Public Health and Medical Officer Service (ÁNTSZ), since 2009 the number of male smokers under 65 decreased by 2% but among those over 65 it grew by 2%. In any case, the percentage of smokers in the 15+ population is very high. It is noteworthy that Hungary has the highest death rate due to lung cancer of any country in the world.

I tried to find data on the percentage of smokers among Hungarian physicians, to no avail. In fact, no such data exist according to The Tobacco Atlas. But here are a few European statistics that are available. In France 34.6% of physicians smoke,  in Poland 76.8%, in Ukraine 33.1%, in Germany 27.5%. The number in the United States is 3.3% and in Canada  6.0%. Let’s assume, extrapolating from these figures, that perhaps a third of all Hungarian doctors smoke. This figure would match the smoking habits of Americans who didn’t even finish high school. And we know that normally there is a high correlation between educational attainment and smoking.

Naturally I find it appalling that Hungarian doctors can have a handsome second income stream selling tobacco products. One might counter that Hungarian doctors are very poorly paid and therefore one mustn’t be very surprised that they grabbed at this business opportunity. But I found at least two obstetricians among the recipients. Obstetrics is the most lucrative medical specialty in Hungary. A childbirth, theoretically free, usually costs $400-500. This money goes straight into the doctor’s pocket, hidden from the prying eyes of the tax man. If estimates are correct, the tobacco shops (which seem to be expanding in the direction of convenience stores) will be equally profitable if not more so. And, after all, business is business.

The tobacco concessions and their aftermath: Further restrictions on transparency

The tobacco concessions scandal is growing. By now there is even a Google Earth map of the country with a guide to all those places where Fidesz politicians, their close relatives, or known sympathizers received permission to open tobacconist shops. That there were political grounds for these awards is not speculation. János Lázár and Antal Rogán explained to the local Fidesz politicians on what basis the concessions should be awarded. Apparently, anyone with either MSZP or Jobbik ties was out of luck.

When the government first announced the so-called competition for concessions, applicants had to draw up their business plans assuming a 4-5% profit margin. Not exactly a potential goldmine. Yet there were a great number of people who seemed to be interested in this business opportunity. Among them were several who applied for concessions for several stores. The suspicion is that the insiders most likely knew that the government would do something to sweeten the deal. And indeed, after the winners were announced an amendment was tacked on to the bill that suggests a profit margin of at least 10%. A day later Viktor Orbán talked about the desirability of a 12% profit margin. If the amendment is approved, the price of cigarettes will go up.

In one of my earlier posts I mentioned that between the two world wars these concessions were normally given to war widows. This was also the case after World War II. Naturally, even then one had to have “connections” in higher places. Endre Aczél, one of the best journalists of the older generation, recalls that his mother was lucky to be granted one of these concessions in 1948 but only because she was the childhood friend of Júlia Földi, better known as Mrs. László Rajk. As we know, Rajk, after being accused of all sorts of treasonous activities, was executed on October 15, 1949. In 1950 someone discovered that a Rajk-protege still had a tobacconist shop, and she was summarily booted out. But at least, as Aczél says in the article, his mother was a war widow. Fidesz rulers don’t even worry about the stated aims of the legislation. They feel they can do anything. And they are right. They can.

However, now that everybody is up in arms and the media will undoubtedly demand information on the details of the concessions, the government decided in a great hurry to amend a law on data privacy. Here is a quick report from Budapest:

The amendment prevents the FOA (Freedom of Information Act Provisions on Data Privacy) from applying to material that is reviewed by the state audit office and the government accountability office.  The reasoning behind the law is that government agencies are already overburdened and fulfilling data requests would be too strenuous. The amendment also states that if another law already regulates the right to information and to accessing, reviewing or copying the documents then the data privacy law does not apply. [The law seems to] exempt some requests from judicial review by the courts.  Furthermore, the law requests that entities that use public money to provide information to the public. However, the amendment now requires that people turn to the body with legal oversight over the entity with complaints if a data request is rejected. The problem here is that in some cases the legal oversight is practiced by courts specializing in business litigation, which are not equipped to judge matters pertaining to FOA.

For one reason or another this tobacco concession business must be very important to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán himself. But I wonder whether the party and the government might be paying too high a political price for material gain. The number of smokers in Hungary is among the highest in Europe. The statistics I checked mentioned 38% in the population as a whole. That is being translated by others as close to 50% of the adult population. The sharply reduced opportunities to buy cigarettes will inconvenience this large group of people who might not care much about democracy and the constitution but will be mighty upset when in the middle of the night they will not be able to buy a pack of cigarettes at the next gas station. And what about those 1,400 small hamlets where most likely there will be no permanent tobacconist shop? And let’s say that the price of cigarettes also goes up as a result of making the sale of tobacco products a state monopoly. All in all, I suspect that Fidesz will lose voters as a result of this move.

Although the Hungarian government inquired in Brussels about the reaction of the European Union to the concession scheme, I consider it possible that, after seeing that currently functioning tobacconists are being deprived of their livelihood, the lawyers of the Union might not find the concession scheme as innocent as it looked a couple of years ago.

It is also possible that the way Fidesz as a party got involved with awarding the concessions might be unconstitutional. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Máté Szabó, the ombudsman, turned to the Constitutional Court.

In addition, there are signs of possible cracks in Fidesz’s armor. At least one rebel raised his naive voice about the state of the party. He even went so far as to question the benefits of unlimited power. We will see what happens to the good veterinarian who is worried about his party. In the past he would have been dropped immediately, but today he may be left alone. Perhaps Viktor Orbán will decide that chastising him would only add oil to the fire.

Iván Bächer: “The educated tobacconist”

Ever since its appearance Saturday in Népszabadság Iván Bächer’s little piece entitled “The educated tobacconist” has been the talk of the country. Or at least of those who are critics of the Orbán government’s policies. Overnight it became the most read article on Népszabadság. Hundreds of people called attention to it on Facebook; they find haunting similarities between the events of 1938 and 2013. Sure, the victims then were citizens of Jewish extraction while today’s discrimination is based on whether one is a supporter of the present government or not. Fidesz is busily taking away the livelihood of the many in order to give it to the few. Just as it was unconstitutional then, it is unconstitutional now. But at least the Horthy regime didn’t claim that Hungary was a democracy.

The story the tobacconist reads to the new owner of his store was written by Ernő Szép (1884-1953), poet, novelist, playwright, and journalist. He survived the Holocaust, but in his remaining years lived in dire poverty. You can read more about him here.

Iván Bächer (1957-) is a prolific writer. He regularly publishes political commentaries in the weekend edition of Népszabadság

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-Are you the tobacconist here?

-Yes, I …. used to be.

-Well, yes. And I will be.

-What do you mean?

-I won the concession for this tobacconist shop.


-Thanks, but only from July ….

-I know.

-In connection with this I have a question.

-What can I do for you?

-How long have you been doing this?

-I have been here for twenty-four years. I took over the shop from my father. And he opened the shop after he returned from service in a labor battalion.

-Oh, so he was a soldier.

-Well, not quite. In any case I was born into this business.

-Excellent. I have a suggestion.

-I am listening.

-Could you teach me a little about this business? During May and June I would sit here and would observe. I would pay you for it. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would learn the trade and you could more easily start a new life.

-I understand.

-Is it okay?

-Yes, okay, but only on one condition.


-I would like to read you a short piece of writing and you would agree to listen to it.

-Writing? Everything has been decided already. Look ….

-No, no, not that kind of writing. Fiction. A little feuilleton.

-Feuilleton? What’s that?

-Well, it’s like a short story but simpler. This one was written by Ernő Szép. Fifty years ago.

-Such a long time ago?

-It wasn’t that long ago. So, sit down, in the back you can find a stool.

-A stool? Don’t you have something more comfortable?


-Well, there will be.

-Of course, there will be but until then sit down and listen. I was preparing for your visit because I was waiting for you. So, here it is.

“The wife of an officer of high rank is entitled to be called  ‘milady.’ She is good looking and dresses well. She purchases her hats from the store of Margit Roth that was the most elegant millinery shop on Váci Street in Pest. One nice day in 1938 she visited Margit Roth, who told me the story herself. First, she tried on a few hats just out of habit, but then she sat down and lit a cigarette and asked Margit Roth to join her at the small table covered with lace and decorated with a vase.

Please sit down for a while, my dear Margit. I would like to discuss something with you. Most likely you haven’t heard it yet because it is still not official that they will take stores away from the Jews. My dear Margit, believe me that I’m very sorry that I have to give you such bad news. When? It is a question of a month or two, my dear. They just began to prepare the bill in the Ministry of the Interior. It’s too bad that you are also Jewish or rather of Jewish origin but in this case being a convert means nothing. So, my dear, they will take away your beautiful shop too. And since this is the situation, which I truly regret because you know what a good friend I was to you, I immediately thought that I would put in a claim for your store. We have four children and my husband unfortunately gambled away his inheritance years ago when he was still a captain. So for me this millinery shop will be a gift from God.

And now I come to the point. My dear Margit, I came to you for a small favor. Please spend some time with me. Let’s say every morning from ten to eleven. That the millinery shop will be mine is certain. My husband already took the necessary steps. And it will be good for you too that you spend some time with me. You will be pleased that I will inherit your store and not some stranger. I will never forget my beloved Margit. My dearest, is it all settled? I think I will start learning the trade already tomorrow. At 9:30? Of course, I can come. How kind of you. Sorry, I have to run to the hairdresser, kisses my dear, and see you tomorrow. Bye.”

-Ahem. Interesting. I don’t know why you read that story to me. After all, you are not a milliner.  In any case, you are an educated person.

-I’m not educated, but I read now and then.

-No, you are an educated person. But you will not get far with that here. Well, it doesn’t matter. May I come tomorrow? Let’s say at 9:30 … Half past nine will be fine for me too.

-Don’t mention it. I will be expecting you.

-See you tomorrow.

-See you.