More evidence plain packaging has failed (unless you’re out to hurt the poor)
Updated: May 19, 2021
Recent studies are sending the premise of plain packaging up in smoke. Plain packaging does not actually reduce cigarette consumption. In fact, evidence shows that the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has actually increased smoking in low and middle-income countries.
Because plain packaging erases branding, it destroys any incentive for businesses to market their products based on quality. The price is the only thing differentiating one pack of cigarettes from another. Companies compete to sell more cigarettes at lower prices, and poor and middle-class smokers alike buy into it.
Instead of getting one pack of cigarettes from an expensive brand, rational consumers buy two of cheapest packs. All marketing based on quality is gone. David Underwood, a researcher at the James Cook University, found that this disruption in the market lead to a significant decline in the amount households spend on tobacco, but an increase in the quantity of tobacco those households consume.
This is particularly true for the poor. A wealthier person is likely to be less sensitive to this change as the number of cigarettes they consume is based more on personal preference and is not restricted by what they earn. Companies competing to sell at the lowest possible price instead of promoting their brand results in more money freed up for the poor. These individuals have more income available to spend on even more cigarettes.
Perversely, our government’s attempts to lowering smoking rates through attempted social engineering, rather than evidence-backed policy, exacerbates the problem. Generic cartons featuring drab font, no logos, and grungy images of blackened lungs, only make highly taxed legal products less distinguishable from cheaper and contraband alternatives.
As is the case with most persecuted products, from Cuban cigars to weed, thriving black markets emerge when the government overzealously cracks down. Risk has monetary value. And at some point, the benefit of evading taxes, plain packaging, or laws, begins into outweigh the cost associated with the risk. If the Australian government is not careful, they may sponsor underground trade of tobacco. In fact, they’ve already poured $600 million in taxpayer funds to recoup revenue lost to smugglers.
As shown by the high tobacco taxes in Australia that have hit the point where they are no longer pushing significantly more smokers off the habit, part of the population is addicted to smoking. Those people are primarily the poor, those most susceptible to buy more cigarettes with plain packaging, convicts, and the mentally ill. No amount of government intervention will change that. Addiction is something which only individuals can conquer. The best the government can do is step out of the way, legalise effective means of getting out of smoking, and resist impoverishing the people enslaved to nicotine.
One of the safest means of helping smokers break a cigarette habit is vaping with nicotine- yet Australia’s government is alone amongst western liberal democracies in keeping this life-saving technology illegal. Tobacco treatment specialists estimate that up to 500,000 premature smoking-related deaths could be averted in Australia alone if nicotine vaping were legalised. Our failed tobacco control bureaucrats and politicians truly have blood on their hands.
From a young age, we are ingrained with an understanding of the consequences of smoking. We are terrorised by parents and teachers into thinking that one puff of a cigarette will instantly transmute lung cancer. What value then is to be added by replacing cigarette brands with graphic imagery that consumers can easily be desensitised to?
People buying a pack of cigarettes already know the consequences.
When I eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s peanut butter cup ice cream, I am fully aware nothing about that choice is good for me. I do not need photos showing me the ravages of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity as I enjoy all 1440 calories. As an adult, who loves ice cream as much as any child, I do not need anyone dictating what I should and should not consume.
Plain packaging of tobacco products could easily slip into plain packaging for Ben & Jerry’s. I can’t image Ben or Jerry would do very well competing against Cole’s store brand ice cream. And ice cream would not be the only fatality. Imagine serving an expensive bottle of wine picturing someone vomiting from binge drinking. This might seem ridiculous, but taxpayer-funded fringe academics have already begun unironically advocating for the extension of failed plain packaging to snacks, fast food, and alcohol.
Plain packaging takes away an individual’s ability to weigh risk and make decisions. It shames people for choices where they already understand the consequences.
Individuals have a right to make choices without becoming lab rats for government social engineering which doesn’t work.
Plain packaging eliminates choice, hurting consumers.
Plain packaging hurts business, especially small business. Small businesses cannot make products as efficiently or as cheaply as larger companies so need branding to distinguish themselves as different from their competitors. The only winners are the mass producers of poor quality products. While consumers may be saving money, they may have preferred to spend more on something better. The government should not make that decision for them.
This article appeared in The Spectator on 28 June 2019.