Plain packs: an illiberal and pointless policy

In the supermarket the other day, I stood patiently in the queue as the guy behind the checkout tried to find the particular brand of cigarettes that the customer in front of me had asked for. All the cigarettes are now behind closed doors and all the packets look the same, apart from the brand name in tiny writing on the front. It took a while.

Such are the irritations of combining a display ban with so-called ‘plain packs’, which will be mandatory from next month. Of course, plain packs are nothing of the sort. They are olive green boxes plastered with shouty health warnings and grotesque pictures. They uglify smoking and trample all over intellectual property rights. You may think branding is pointless and superficial, but tobacco companies spent millions establishing them. Governments should be wary when interfering with any rights, even the right to brand a product as you see fit. But, you may think, it will all be worth it if smoking rates fall. Indeed, plain packs were justified as a means of putting young people off smoking.

Well, a major review of the evidence on plain packs has just come in. The researchers claim that plain packs ‘could’ lead to 300,000 fewer smokers in the UK over the next year. That’s a cut in the smoking rate of a whopping… drum roll… 0.5 percentage points. Maybe. Or maybe not. The current evidence is ‘limited’.

Even worse, as BBC News reports, ‘there was no evidence that changing packaging affected the number of young people taking up smoking’. Yup, an expensive and annoying policy has been implemented where there is no evidence it will actually achieve its main objective. In any other sphere, this would be branded a dreadful farce. But when it comes to smoking, evidence of a policy’s efficacy is irrelevant. The only concern is to make smoking as unpleasant and inconvenient as possible.

When plain packs were first mooted, a public consultation found more people against the idea than in favour. Sensible voices prevailed and the idea was shelved. However, when accusations were levelled by opposition parties that the Conservatives’ electoral guru, Lynton Crosby, had swayed ministers thanks to his other consultancy work with the tobacco industry, party politics prevailed. A half-baked review was ordered and the policy was swiftly passed to avoid an awkward argument. As it happens, the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive demanded plain packs in any event.

Such is the history of tobacco-control policies: a new illiberal measure is proposed, it is introduced, it has little effect and the bandwagon rolls on to the next policy – with politicians conveniently forgetting to scrap the failed ones. In reality, only one factor has significantly cut smoking rates in recent years, and it happened in spite, not because of, government policy: the development and rising popularity of e-cigarettes. And just to show how boneheaded the tobacco control lobby really is, another section of the Tobacco Products Directive coming into force next month puts considerable restrictions on… e-cigarettes.

It is just this kind of unaccountable policymaking that led to the vote to leave the EU. The tale of plain packs confirms that Westminster can be as bad as Brussels in this regard. But that referendum result in June last year shows voters have had just about enough of this nonsense. It’s time to make governments accountable for their stupid ideas.

Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.

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