At first glance, the debate about whether tobacco manufacturers should be forced to put their products in standardised packaging doesn’t sound like the Greatest Issue of Our Time. There will be no barricades raised, there will be no ‘plain-pack martyrs’. But anyone who believes that we – both individuals and companies – should be free to choose how we go about our business and conduct our lives should be very concerned indeed.
The UK Lib-Con coalition government has announced that it will shortly begin consulting on the idea of introducing ‘plain packaging’. In Australia, where such a policy has already been voted through, to be implemented from the end of 2012, ‘plain’ is a total misnomer. Down Under, 90 per cent of the surface of every pack will be covered in health warnings and gruesome imagery of disease. Just 10 per cent will be left to tell you what brand you are smoking. For smokers, it’s not so much guidance as gorno. Early indications suggest that UK proposals will be similar.
The tobacco industry is very upset, to say the least, about the possible consequences. That’s not because producers think that people will smoke much less. There is little likelihood of that. A raft of measures to try to bully or nag us into smoking less has already come into force with little impact on smoking rates: stiff taxes on cigarettes; bans on smoking in many public and private spaces; prohibitions on advertising and sponsorship; enormous budgets devoted to nagging us to quit for the sake of our health or that of our children; endless junk science about second-hand and even ‘third-hand’ smoking. If that lot hasn’t had the desired affect, packaging is unlikely to persuade us to give up the ‘evil weed’.
What really concerns the cigarette makers is that the new rules would obliterate overnight the brands that the industry has built up over decades. Devoid of brand loyalty, smokers have little incentive to buy an expensive make of cigarettes over a cheaper one. There’s also the problem of counterfeiting: it’s going to be much easier to produce fakes if every cigarette box looks almost identical.
Nor is it just manufacturers who are worried. While health departments instigate one policy after another, each inspired by intense lobbying from tobacco prohibitionists (lobbying paid for by those very health departments), those who hold government purse strings will be fretting about the increasing incentives for tax avoidance (like buying in bulk from abroad) or tax evasion (buying from bootleggers and smugglers).
But even if you’re not a smoker, or don’t care greatly for the welfare of tobacco companies and Treasury bean-counters, you should be worried about the plain-packaging plan.