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Plain packaging, bigger picture

Monday January 30, 2012

Chris Snowdon says that Australia’s ban on tobacco branding will have little impact in itself. It’s what follows that is the real deal.

The law to mandate plain cigarette packaging passed through the Australian parliament last year to the delight of tobacco control groups and the fury of the tobacco industry. The general public can be forgiven for being apathetic about a policy which had become a pitched battle between anti-smoking extremists and the cigarette companies. Plain packaging does not obviously victimise smokers like smoking bans and regressive taxes do, and although plain packaging is another unwelcome step towards ‘denormalisation’, they—like everybody else—have bigger worries.

For the anti-smokers, industry indignation is tantamount to proof that the policy will succeed in lowering the smoking rate. They are willfully missing the point. The tobacco industry is not a monolithic entity but a group of companies engaged in fierce competition. Plain packaging will erase their last means of differentiating their products and make it extremely difficult to launch new brands or compete on anything other than price. Every business would fight to protect their intellectual property with equal vehemence.

The implication that non-smokers suddenly take up a notoriously unhealthy habit because packets are coloured red or blue is an insult to our intelligence. Self-righteous reformers have always exaggerated the significance of marketing. Wedded to the belief that everybody secretly wishes to live like them, the prohibitionists choose to believe that millions of people suffer from a false consciousness caused by advertising.

They tell themselves that if it were not for a rapacious industry and their snazzy logos, everybody would choose a life of abstinence. Advocates of tobacco control spent forty years trying to wipe out advertising and they succeeded. Every form of tobacco marketing and sponsorship was banished from Australia several years ago, as it was in Britain, and yet—bafflingly—smoking continues.

Rather than accept that advertising has less of an effect on our fragile little minds than they first believed, the movement has resorted to portraying packaging as advertising. Considering the lack of imagery on cigarette packs, aside from the prominent graphic health warnings, this looks like a barrel being scraped, but the current Australian government has never seen a ban it didn’t like and it leapt at the chance to become the first country in the world to ban cigarette logos.

Many of the arguments made for and against plain packaging in Australia were weak. Cigarette companies were right to warn that it would force them to compete on price, and they were right to predict that this would mean cheaper cigarettes, but they should not have been surprised when this message was reported as: “Tobacco industry threatens to flood Australia with cheap cigarettes” (Herald Sun).

The industry was technically correct in saying that there is no evidence the policy will have any effect on the smoking rate, but anti-smokers were equally justified in noting that no new idea has an evidence base. Alas, having taken a rare climb onto the logical high ground, campaigners then contradicted themselves by claiming to have a mountain of supporting evidence based on behavioural experiments.

The industry was on firmer ground when it said that plain packaging would make life easier for counterfeiters and would be the start of another slippery slope down which alcohol and food products would tumble. Anti-smoking campaigners denied this charge, just as they did when graphic warnings were introduced, but with Australia’s Preventive Health Taskforce now demanding graphic warnings on beer bottles—not to mention the campaigns for minimum pricing and fat taxes—the credibility of slippery slope deniers is wearing very thin.

Plain packaging is an affront to the free market and a gross infringement of intellectual property rights. Even strong advocates of the policy do not expect it to deter smokers from smoking. It has nothing to do with health and everything to do with the egos of veteran anti-smoking activists and their adolescent bickering with ‘Big Tobacco’. The apathy of smokers towards the issue confirms that cigarettes are bought for what is in the packet, not the packet itself, and that fact alone suggests that Australia’s step into the unknown will be a yawning anti-climax.

If the Australia government can surmount the significant legal obstacles in its way, plain packaging will raise three points of interest. The first is how smokers will respond to a mass social experiment equivalent to the Pepsi challenge. How many will continue to smoke their usual brands once the packets are devoid of their colours and logos, and how many will shift to other, cheaper brands?

Secondly, where will tobacco control go from here? With plain packaging in place, the extremists have exhausted all of the options I listed in the final chapter of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. What fresh lunacy will follow? Warnings on individual cigarettes? Smoking licences? All out prohibition? In Australia, the zealots’ latest idea is to alter cigarettes to make them “foul tasting”. This rather gives the game away; the crusade is not about offering health advice, it is about bludgeoning smokers over the head until they are forced to give up.

Thirdly, with the world watching, the anti-smokers are sure to spend enormous sums of money ‘proving’ that the policy has worked. The nature of the evidence makes this virtually impossible to do—there are simply too many variables at the population level—but do it they must. This will be another test of tobacco control’s notorious ability to manufacture evidence and I predict some particularly fruity junk science coming from down under in a year or two.

Chris Snowdon’s latest book, The Art of Suppression, is available to order from his website.

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