Red faces for plain packaging champions

Chris Snowdon / No Comments Share:
wikipedia/CC BY-SA
wikipedia/CC BY-SA

Five years after the introduction of plain packaging laws in Australia, the results are embarrassing for those who said it would dramatically reduce tobacco consumption.

The much-touted 2012 Aussie laws mandate that cigarette packs must exclude brand indentifiers such as colours or logos and the pack itself must be Pantone 448C ‘opaque couché’, which market research indicates is the world’s ugliest hue.

However, in the first 12 months of implementation of no-branding tobacco, the number of cigarettes sold in Australia actually rose for the first time in years, and for the following three years smoking rates proceeded to statistically flatline, according to figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Five years ago, critics of the policy had three major concerns. They said that plain packaging wouldn’t affect people’s decision to smoke, it would be a boost to the illicit trade, and it would lead to a slippery slope of regulation in which every product that displeases nanny statists would become fair game.

The record shows that they were right.

After the unexpected rise in cigarettes sales following the introduction of plain packaging,

the Australian government started hiking up tobacco taxes at an extraordinary rate. Tobacco excise has gone up by 13 percent every year since December 2013.

This has helped suppress legal cigarette sales but the combination of higher taxes and the abolition of intellectual property led to an unprecedented surge in illegal black-market activity, home-growing and smuggling.

The problem got so bad that the Australian border force formed a tobacco strike team in October 2015, and intercepted 400 tonnes of illicit tobacco in its first two years.

Then, a huge tobacco smuggling syndicate was busted in August this year, when 570 police officers raided homes and businesses
across Sydney. Multi-million dollar tobacco crops are regularly discovered in the outback, but for every tonne of tobacco that is intercepted, many more aztonnes make it to the streets.

Plain packaging had no positive effect on people’s health in Australia. It was never likely to. The whole idea made a mockery of evidence-based policy and it is no surprise that those who advocated it are keen to move on to the next target and campaigners have set their eyes on plain packaging for alcohol, junk food, and sugary drinks.

Earlier this year, the prize-winning scientist Wolfram Schultz complained about the “colourful wrapping of high energy foods” and suggested that plain packaging would be a step towards “regulating the desire to get more calories”.

Only this month, an editorial in the Lancet said that it was “not unimaginable that bottles of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which once bore the artwork of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, might one day be required to have plain packaging and images of oesophageal cancer or a cirrhotic liver”. How delightful.

One of the side effects of plain packaging regulations is that Australia is fighting a needless and wholly avoidable war with black marketeers, who in the absence of brand competition have developed their own brands and sell them illegally around Australia in whatever packaging suits them.

Intellectual property rights have been trampled and a Pandora’s Box has been opened – all for something to which smokers have reacted with a shrug of the shoulders.

Australian politicians may be too proud to repeal this foolish piece of legislation, but perhaps they will wait for evidence next time.

Chris Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, and author of The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800.

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