More government interference: why plain tobacco packets are plain nonsense

Plain packaging will not lead to less youth smoking, but more smuggling and more wasting of tax payers’ money. It is illegal under world trade laws and sets an appalling precedent for further state interference

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Is this the next 'logical' step?
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David Atherton
On 8 March 2012 10:45

The relentless assault on smokers continues unabated. The coalition has implemented the tobacco display ban which in large shops becomes operational on April 1st this year and for smaller convenience stores from April 1st 2015.

The next 'logical' step is having a one size fits all plain packet with just the brand name visible. The anti-tobacco groups contend that glamorous packaging encourages young people and, patronisingly, women to take up smoking.

Bristol West Liberal Democrat MP and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health, Stephen Williams kicked off on the 16th January with Professor Simon Chapman who heads up New South Wales' Public Health Programme where he writes "This morning I was pleased to help launch Europe’s first major campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of glitzy tobacco packaging to children."

The Guardian was keen to add to the debate too with an article on Professor Chapman. A quite impressive 1,352 comments later from furious smokers and non smokers suggests that Williams may have a harder job persuading Parliament and the electorate.

However, the empirical evidence does not make the case. It may be illegal under World Trade Organization laws and, like many government interventions, with some rather sinister, unintended consequences.

Even Chapman and Williams concede that it will not have a desired effect: "We're not expecting plain packaging to have much impact on existing smokers." The main reason for the tobacco companies objection is that the package design is a purely a marketing, brand recognition tool. It is not a form of advertising, as that was finally banned in 2003 in the UK.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), Department of Health (DoH) and government have steadily increased the taxation that has invoked the Laffer Curve, which is too high, causing tax evasion. There are, in the UK, networks of organised criminals importing counterfeit cigarettes and the public are legally going to Belgium to import their smokes.

It is estimated that the treasury misses out on £2billion a year. My friends at ASH provide the provenance: "A study published in 2008 estimated that about 22% of all tobacco smoked in the UK was smuggled– equivalent to 18 billion cigarettes out of a total market of 82billion."

Counterfeited cigarettes pose an even greater health threat as they are made in unhygienic factories and contain much higher levels of poisonous metals such as cadmium and lead and of course the packet has to be forged. The proposals for plain packaging will mean that the design, the colour and health warnings will be identical. The only means of differentiation will the name of the brand and that will have an identical font. What a nightmare for the retailer and smoker which will only boost the black market.

There is currently a debate going on at the World Trade Organization (WTO) as to whether it is legal. The Australian Parliament has passed the legislation and the tobacco companies are understandably suing. Under the 1986 Uruguay Round Article 20 has been cited by the tobacco companies and says: "The use of a trademark in the course of trade shall not be unjustifiably encumbered by special requirements.." So it appears the UK government is wasting taxpayers’ money on an event they cannot win. In the USA graphic, health warnings have been declared illegal by District Judge Richard Leon as 'unconstitutional' and a violation of 'free speech.'

The 'uglification' of cigarette packets will most probably prompt other health nannies to want their own. On alcohol can we expect pictures of livers with cirrhosis, McDonald’s cartons with images of obesity and type 2 diabetes? Not forgetting photos of severed heads from car accidents. Where will the state's interference finally stop?

Getting to the point, plain packaging and graphic health warnings have been researched by scientists. In 2009 the Department of Psychologies for the Universities of New York, Basel and Wurzburg investigated smoker's reactions to graphic images which will be even more prominent on plain packets.

There is a principle in psychology developed by Ernest Becker called 'Terror Management.' The basic theory is that “.. all human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death.” Jerry Fink says, "When presented with the threat of mortality, teens and young adults who already smoke may become more entrenched in their smoking habits in an attempt to bolster their fragile and developing sense of self.” The paper itself says, "Results suggest that to the degree that smoking is a source of self-esteem, later attitudes towards smoking become more positive if the warning message is mortality-salient."

In plain English it may well lead to more smoking, especially amongst the young.

Finally let us look at substances that do come in plain packages – in fact the plainer the better – hard drugs. In Australia, Professor Simon Chapman of Sydney University has been particularly successful in demonising smokers and smoking, leading to many bans and restrictions not only in Australasia but also the Far East. 

Australian government statistics show that teenagers have a 12 percent try rate with tobacco, whereas cannabis is at 21.5 percent, nearly twice as high. If you combine ecstasy, amphetamines, cocaine et al it adds up to 34.5 percent nearly three times as much as tobacco. What do all these drugs have in common? That’s right, plain packaging.

Tobacco is not good for you: mortality, on average, comes seven years earlier and 70 percent of lung cancer cases are smokers. However, the alternative maybe far worse.

Plain packaging will not lead to less youth smoking, but, instead, more smuggling and more wasting of tax payers’ money. It is illegal under world trade laws and sets the most appalling precedent for further state interference.

I hope on the 14th March you can join me at the Institute of Economic Affairs for a discussion on plain packaging where Drs. Basham and Luik will review the evidence, followed by a complimentary reception.

David Atherton is Chairman of Freedom2Choose, which seeks to protect the informed choices of consenting adults on the issues of smoking

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