Plain packaging

By Paul Walker 05/09/2012

[Originally published 14 August 2012]

The policy of ‘plain packaging’ for tobacco products is an issue here and many other places around the world. The idea is being discussed in the U.K. right now. The Adam Smith Institute has argued against plain packaging. It has published a report by Chris Snowdon on the subject.

The executive summary of the report reads:

1. The UK government is considering the policy of ‘plain packaging’ for tobacco products. If such a law is passed, all cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco will be sold in generic packs without branding or trademarks. All packs will be the same size and colour (to be decided by the government) and the only permitted images will be large graphic warnings, such as photos of tumours and corpses. Consumers will be able to distinguish between products only by the brand name, which will appear in a small, standardised font.

2. As plain packaging has yet to be tried anywhere in the world, there is no solid evidence of its efficacy or unintended consequences.

3. Focus groups and opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the public does not believe that plain packaging will stop people smoking. Even ardent antismoking campaigners do not make such a claim. Instead, activists assert that nonsmokers take up the habit as a result of seeing “glitzy” tobacco packaging. This claim lacks plausibility and is bereft of empirical evidence.

4. One in nine cigarettes smoked around the world is counterfeit or smuggled.The illicit market lowers prices, fuels underage consumption, deprives the treasury of tax revenue and makes an unhealthy habit still more hazardous. It is hard to think of a policy that could delight counterfeiters more than standardising the design, shape and colour of cigarette packs.

5. The wholesale confiscation of an industry’s brands and trademarks represents an unprecedented assault on commercial expression. It not only tramples on the principles of a free market, but it may also be illegal. Expert opinion, including that of the European Communities Trade Mark Association, the British Brands Group and the International Trademark Association, says that plain packaging is an infringement of intellectual property rights and a violation of international free trade agreements to which the UK is a signatory.

6. Anti-smoking lobbyists claim that plain packaging will not be imposed on other industries in the future, but this is a hollow reassurance in the light of the accelerating war on alcohol, sugar, salt and fat. What happens to tobacco tends to happen to other products sooner or later. Public health organisations around the world have been applying the blueprint of antitobacco regulation to other products for years. Sin taxes and advertising bans are increasingly common for certain types of food and drink, and various campaigners have called for graphic warnings to be placed on bottles of alcohol. It should be no surprise that in Australia, where a plain packaging law was passed in 2011, activists are already demanding that ‘junk food’ be sold in generic packaging. Australian anti-smoking lobbyists, meanwhile, say that the next step after plain packaging is to force the tobacco industry to make cigarettes “foul-tasting”.

7. Plain packaging is not a health policy is any recognisable sense. It neither informs nor educates. On the contrary, it limits information and restricts choice. It will serve only to inconvenience retailers, stigmatise consumers and encourage counterfeiters. Wholesale expropriation of private property to make way for public propaganda represents an unacceptable intrusion into an already over-regulated marketplace which will set a dangerous
precedent for other products.

I’m not sure that counterfeit or smuggled cigarettes is, yet, a big problem in New Zealand , so point 4 may not apply here. The other points, however, would seem to be relevant to out debate.