The plain lies of plain-packs advocates

A High Court ruling last week means Australians will be guinea pigs for an illiberal policy based on junk science.

Ben Lazarus

Topics Politics

In Australia last week, the tobacco industry’s appeal to the High Court against the government’s decision to implement ‘plain packaging’ of cigarettes proved unsuccessful, with the court stating that the new law does not violate the constitution. Therefore, from 1 December 2012, cigarettes will be sold in uniform olive-coloured packaging covered with graphic warnings, and featuring a small generic font.

Hailing what was actually a widely expected outcome as a ‘massive victory’, the Australian government has argued it will save countless lives. The Australian attorney-general, Nicola Roxon, claimed: ‘This is good news for every Australian parent who worries about their child picking up an addictive and deadly habit.’ Unsurprisingly, the decision was swiftly welcomed by the World Health Organisation, which expressed its desire for a ‘domino effect’, where other countries considering similar legislation – including Britain, Canada, China, France, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Norway and Uruguay – will follow suit.

Certainly the Australian court decision will be used by campaigners in Britain as further justification for the introduction of similar legislation here. The Department of Health (DoH) consultation on ‘plain packaging’ – surely ‘gorno packaging’ would be a more accurate description – ended on 10 August. The DoH has hardly exuded neutrality on the issue, with government-funded groups actively campaigning in favour of such a law.

There are two key claims being made about plain packs by the anti-smoking brigade. Firstly that someone – particularly a young person – will begin smoking because of the nice logos and pretty colours on cigarette packs. Secondly that by implementing plain packaging, cigarette consumption will fall. Both claims are both deeply flawed.

As plain packaging has never been tested anywhere in the world, many of the scientific arguments used by its adherents are dubious. For example, one kind of evidence is based on questionnaires which ask people about whether they prefer a regular cigarette packet or a ‘plain’ pack – that is, one without logos and plastered with unpleasant images. Such survey evidence is not a suitable basis on which serious scientific suppositions can be based. It is, after all, unsurprising that people dislike packaging covered in gory pictures as opposed to familiar and stylish branding.

As writer Christopher Snowdon notes: ‘It is no great surprise that those surveyed usually prefer the normal pack, but it tells us nothing about whether fewer people would smoke as a result.’ In other words, hard evidence that plain packaging will have health benefits is non-existent; such arguments are simply based on speculation.

Surprisingly, the view that the plain-packs legislation will have no effect on smoking rates is also held by the Australian government. As pointed out by Australian Sunday Telegraph columnist Peter Van Onselen, the Australian government’s own tax-revenue estimates suggest it expects no decrease in smoking rates: ‘Treasurer Wayne Swan is relying for his much-anticipated return to surplus in 2012-13 on a largely unchanged windfall from smokers. It’s the same story in subsequent years.’ Unless the Australian government are planning to grossly inflate the sin tax on cigarettes, this seems an admission that the policy may not actually have much of an impact on demand.

Anti-smoking campaigners in Britain, however, are likely to remain convinced that without nice pretty colours and logos on cigarette packaging, children will not start to smoke. Yet the dangers of smoking are hardly unambiguous. One cannot purchase a packet today without being reminded through grim imagery, and bold warnings, such as ‘SMOKING KILLS’, that it is not one of the healthiest of pastimes.

This raises a question: if children still smoke cigarettes despite images of throat cancer and ‘SMOKING KILLS’ messages, what will change if they are sold without a logo in a diarrhoea draped browny-green packet? The answer is nothing. Children smoke because they, like generations before them, desire to be seen as marginally rebellious, radical, and naughty. George Orwell, writing about his experience of arriving at Eton College as the young, shy teenager Eric Blair, makes exactly that point: he took up the habit as a form of rebellion, since smoking was strictly forbidden. This view has recently been echoed in a poll, where only 28 per cent of adults thought the plain-packs measure would actually discourage the young from taking up smoking.

Moreover, it could be suggested that plain packaging may lead to an increase in consumption, since smoking will become even more rebellious than it is today. David Atherton, director of the UK group Freedom2Choose, has argued that plain-packaged cannabis, heroin, cocaine and so on have been sampled by more Australian youth than tobacco. That suggests that a willingness to dabble with a particular drug has less to do with packaging or health concerns and more to do with the kudos of trying something considered risky and rebellious. Plain packaging will enhance the apparent edginess of cigarette smoking.

In addition to falsifying empirical evidence, the puritans in Australia have attempted to portray this latest episode as a David versus Goliath saga, with Nicola Roxon declaring: ‘The message to the rest of the world is big tobacco can be taken on and beaten.’ Yet since when do national governments quake in the face of private companies?

Naturally, the tobacco industry is going to oppose anything that threatens its profits. And it is likely that as the cachet of premium brands is diminished as a consequence of plain packaging, so smokers may revert to cheaper brands. This will make the cigarette business less profitable, as margins are tighter on cheaper cigarettes, but that does not mean that fewer people will smoke. It is quite clear that tobacco firms are not worried about a declining number of smokers so much as they are about losing that premium price paid for their big brands or losing customers to cheaper brands.

Despite this, the ever-charming Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the anti-smoking lobby group ASH UK, gleefully claimed last week: ‘Australia’s big defeat of Big Tobacco is a victory for the world. There will be many more court cases but the principle is clear: the tobacco industry has no legal right to put profit before health in marketing its lethal products.’ But it is clear from Australia’s budget forecasts that the tobacco industry is worried about maintaining its market share, and losing consumers to cheaper competitors, not that cigarette consumption itself will decrease.

Furthermore, the tobacco industry has reason to be concerned because of counterfeiting. Indeed, last month in the UK, 50 MPs signed an open letter to health secretary Andrew Lansley, declaring that plain packaging will be a ‘smuggler’s charter’. They argued that currently 16 per cent of cigarettes and 50 per cent of hand-rolling tobacco in the UK is smuggled. Legislation that makes packs more or less uniform will ‘make smuggling simpler’, exacerbating this loss of tax revenue. The policy also potentially ‘threatens more than 5,500 jobs directly employed by the UK tobacco sector and over 65,000 valued jobs in the associated supply chain’.

The MPs then asked whether such legislation will stop at tobacco: ‘If the Department of Health were to introduce standardised packaging for tobacco products, would it also do the same for alcohol, fast-food, chocolate and all other products deemed unhealthy for us?’

In any event, such legislation would appear to be in breach of World Trade Organisation rules, which state that ‘the use of a trademark in the course of trade shall not be unjustifiably encumbered by special requirements’. Therefore, the tobacco industry – like it or loathe it – has reason to be dismayed at the loss of its brand property.

Having failed to persuade us to quit with graphic health-warnings, outrageous tax hikes and by hiding cigarettes behind shutters in shops, the anti-tobacco lobby sees the plain-packaging campaign as the latest stage in the process of taking the choice out of our hands altogether – in other words, prohibition. It is not, however, the place of any government to decide how we should live our lives, even when we make the ‘wrong choices’. Everyone must understand that where tobacco control goes, the regulation of other ‘bad habits’ inevitably soon follows.

As the anti-smoking brigade continues its vituperative attacks on the vice of smoking through the obscurantist term ‘plain packaging’, we all have an interest in standing up in the face of such bigotry and illiberalism. As autonomous individuals, we should not have our lifestyle choices determined by anyone else, let alone this puritanical band of intolerant anti-smokers.

Benjamin Lazarus is a final-year politics student at the University of Bristol. He has previously written for the Huffington Post, the Commentator and the Jewish Chronicle among others. He tweets at @BLazarus1.

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Topics Politics


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