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The Science Media Centre provides an expert round-up of commentary on a new paper finding, unsurprisingly, that people like branded tobacco packs more than they like plain packs. What's more relevant for policy, and what we really have no clue about, is whether changing the branding on packages has effects on aggregate sales or whether it works instead to break brand loyalty and move consumers to lower-cost no-name packs. As Professor Richard Edwards noted in his plenary address to the Oceania Tobacco Control Conference in Brisbane last October:
Plain packs have not been implemented, so evidence of the probable population impact must come from experimental studies, focus groups, surveys and so on; rather than rigorous controlled studies of the impact of the actual intervention in the real setting, as would be the ideal.
If we cared about knowing whether tobacco plain packaging has any effect, we could find out pretty easily. Set the whole thing up as a randomized policy trial. Some parts of the country get plain packs, some parts don't, and watch what happens over the subsequent few years. I'd sketched out a framework for that kind of trial back in April. Even better: if Australia is implementing the same policy, run the trial across both countries.

Instead, we're designing policy to avoid ever being able to find out whether it's had any effect. In Oz, they're bundling plain packaging with a simultaneous national increase in tobacco excise taxes. The effects of price increases will be hopelessly confounded with the effects of plain packaging unless there's reasonable ex ante state level variation in tobacco prices.
The price of cigarettes would rise to $20 a pack under a Gillard Government proposal that would reap an extra $1.25 billion a year in taxes.

The West Australian understands the Government is considering a 25 per cent rise in tobacco excise that would raise $5 billion over four years.

The plan emerged from a Treas- ury reconsideration of so-called "sin" taxes. It would repeat the financial windfall from an identical move in 2010.

The proposal is in line with long-standing advice from the National Preventative Health Taskforce and would lift the price of a pack of 30 cigarettes by $2.62.

Peter Jackson 30s, now about $18.30, would cost almost $21 under the measure and the price of Dunhill 25s would increase $2.18, taking the retail price to more than $19.50.

The excise increase may be timed to coincide with the introduction of mandatory plain-packaging for tobacco products on December 1. [emphasis added]

International research has found there is a 4 per cent fall in smoking rates for every 10 per cent increase in price. Anti-smoking crusader and Curtin University Professor Mike Daube said higher cigarette prices would discourage children and people on low incomes from smoking. "An excise increase sooner rather than later could also prevent tobacco industry efforts to subvert the impact of plain packaging by lowering prices," he said.
There are non-crazy reasons for wanting to bundle excise increases with plain packaging. If, absent brands, smokers see there being less difference between low cost off-brand cigarettes and higher cost branded cigarettes, they may substitute down to the lower cost cigarettes and then smoke more - I expect this is the main worry of the tobacco industry as they make their returns on the branded product. Consumption goes up but margins go down more than proportionately. Countering this with excise increases isn't entirely nuts if you want to curb smoking rates, but it makes it awfully hard to tell whether plain packaging does anything other than destroy the value of the tobacco companies' brands.

I still think a randomized policy trial is what's needed if we care about finding out truth rather than just beating up on Big Tobacco.