The dangers of government gore

Plain cigarette packs will not be plain – they will be plastered in bloody and gross propaganda.

The Department of Health in the UK is soon to publish the results of a consultation surrounding the proposed standardisation of tobacco products, euphemistically termed ‘plain packaging’. Euphemistically, because the result of this policy, if ultimately pursued, would be the exact opposite of ‘plain’.

Gory images, which most parents would balk at letting their children see in any other setting, are to be placed on tobacco packaging in the name of protecting the kids. According to health experts, it’s far worse that vulnerable children and teenagers catch a glimpse of a cigarette packet’s colour scheme than an image of a bloody heart, a bulging blood-stained eye, or a corpse.

It is clear that the selling point of plain packaging to governments worldwide is protection of children from being tempted to smoke their first cigarette, yet there is something very unseemly in the way it is now being promoted.

Australian architects of the plan, who have convinced their government that it is an essential step forward, are adamant that this is an issue of child protection. A laudable goal, but one which was unceremoniously discarded once their government decided on the implementation date of 1 December this year.

Since then, the emphasis has transformed into one of triumphalism at the besting of a sworn enemy, Big Tobacco. Children have been banished from the arena now the case has been won, with cheerleaders of the policy glorying in the discomfort of the industry whose branding has been confiscated, rather than celebrating the multitudes of children who have been spared such branding’s malignant influence. The cynic could be forgiven for thinking that children had been exploited as a Trojan horse for ugly – and, from a public-health aspect, unnecessary - abuse of legal consumer products.

Despite tobacco companies reluctantly acquiescing after a legal challenge, the vitriol from government has only increased. When Imperial Tobacco attempted to reassure adult consumers that the product they were selling would remain unchanged, federal health minister Tanya Plibersek thundered that it was ‘a sick joke’. If she made mention of children, the Sydney Morning Herald found no reason to report it.

Likewise, there was no reference to children when Bloomberg Businessweek described how the policy would be policed. Images of ‘a gangrenous foot, a tongue cancer, a toilet stained with bloody urine, and a skeletal man named Bryan who is dying of lung cancer’ are to be monitored minutely.

‘Government inspectors will be closely scrutinising packs over the next two months, on the lookout for even small deviations from the stylebook’, a spokesman for Plibersek is quoted as saying. The level of gore is to be the subject of continual forensic analysis as some pictures were deemed not grisly enough: ‘The images that had appeared on some of the packs - graphic health warnings, photos of people with gangrene - weren’t as sharp as they could have been. The reds weren’t as red as they should be.’

This extraordinary zero-tolerance might be understandable for a policy which offered a proven significant measurable effect, but not even the most optimistic of plain-packaging champions have claimed anything resembling that. Australia’s treasury is estimating that tobacco-duty receipts will remain unchanged, and it recently emerged that centrally administered equity funds continue to increase their holdings of tobacco stocks. In the UK, even the fervently pro-plain pack charity Cancer Research UK could only offer this studiously cautious slogan: ‘Plain packs won’t stop everyone from smoking, but they will give millions of kids one less reason to start.’

For all the exaggerated campaign bluster, it is clear that plain-packaging activists are nervously biting their lips. Far from confident that their landmark initiative will improve anything at all, let alone save lives, they will surely be stratospherically delighted if the effect is detectable to even a tiny fraction of a percentage point.

In this environment, it is inconceivable that anything as trivial as the hue of the red printed on plain packs will have any bearing on whether or not a child starts smoking. For a rational government, the introduction of armies of inspectors to roam the country checking deviations of colour almost imperceptible to the naked eye with no possibility of a reciprocal benefit, would be discarded as an absurd waste of taxpayer resources. It is the public-sector equivalent of a cruise liner paying accounting professionals to calculate the extra fuel required in the event of a fly landing on the guard rail.

We are beyond proportion or rationality with the drive for plain packaging, or even linguistic honesty. There is nothing plain about the packaging, just as there is nothing plain about the heroic claims made by a health lobby consumed by zeal to bully legislation into the statute book. The only ingredient of the campaign which is truly plain is the transparent attack on an industry which governments and the health lobby simply don’t like.

Australia started the ball rolling with a campaign centred on child protection but which now ignores children in favour of publicly excoriating the tobacco industry. Erstwhile Lib-Con health secretary Andrew Lansley took that approach further by explaining his own consultation as a means of arriving ‘at a point where they [tobacco companies] have no business in this country’, again without any mention of children. In New Zealand, where a consultation has recently concluded, the proposal is being sold as a stepping stone towards full prohibition of tobacco by 2025, rather than protecting the young.

It is deeply disingenuous for health lobbies and governments to claim that plain packaging is anything but a thinly veiled assault on tobacco and its users. If that is their aim, their reticence to admit it only exhibits their own doubts about its success.

Public health in a free society should be about minimising harm to innocents and the unwary. The departure from the original stated aims of plain packaging shows that a succession of governments are now pursuing an ideological war against legitimate, popular pastimes and businesses, rather than a responsible, transparent and inclusive public-health policy.

Martin Cullip is a columnist for the Free Society.

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