Plain packaging laws are stupid and illiberal


Most puritans have been put sharply on the defensive in recent years. Drug prohibitionists may finally be losing their war, and campaigns like the government’s Talk To Frank, which helpfully gives the going street value of common drugs among other things, suggest that the cultural war is already won. Anti-sex campaigners must be even more depressed about how things are going, although to be fair they must be fighting the most unwinnable war in human history. On both counts, personal responsibility and liberalism seem to be winning over social conservatism. Thank god for that.

It’s strange, then, that anti-smoking campaigners seem to be advancing dramatically across the world. The indoor smoking ban, which besides being fundamentally illiberal is also putting half the British pub industry out of business, is now lauded by human weather-vane David Cameron, who used to oppose it. And now Australia has become the first country to introduce a “plain-packaging” law. Basically, it means that cigarettes will now have to be sold in plain white boxes with big health warnings on them and no logos. The plans are monumentally stupid. And, unsurprisingly, anti-smoking groups want to bring them here.

The laws are deeply illiberal. Arguments for the smoking ban to protect pub staff from second-hand smoke were unconvincing and weak, but at least made from a position of protecting third parties from smokers. Plain packaging laws do nothing of the sort; they simply treats adults like children by making "bad things" less shiny. The government should have no place in trying to change what adults do in their private lives if it only concerns them and other consenting adults – that is the essence of liberalism. That there is even a discussion of how to interfere in adults' lives like this to make them "better" should be chilling to anybody who considers herself a liberal.

I don’t expect anti-smoking campaigners to care about individual rights and personal liberties. These are basically irrelevant to them, because they see most of the adult population as bleating livestock who need to be controlled by "experts" for their own good.

What these anti-liberals should care about are the unintended consequences of their actions. What plain packaging laws will do is, essentially, empower counterfeit cigarette sellers by removing their biggest hurdle – replicating the designs on cigarette boxes. Currently, a fake pack of cigarettes is pretty easy to spot because of the shoddy quality of the box. If this is made uniformly plain across cigarette packets, it becomes much easier for people to pass fake counterfeits off as the real thing. And more people will be inclined to buy fakes knowingly as well – whatever social sanctioning there is against people smoking dud cigarettes will evaporate once the prestige of smoking a good brand is removed.

That means that fraud is easier; that money goes to criminal gangs instead of tobacco company shareholders; and that smokers’ health is endangered even more because of the shortcuts taken by cigarette counterfeiters. I don’t care if someone wants to smoke crappy Chinese-made cigarettes, but they had better be aware of their choices.

Australia has never been known for being a particularly liberal place, but it’s a great shame that anti-smoking paternalists are so powerful in Britain too, where there is a long tradition of liberalism. Adults should be allowed to be adults, without interference from the state. It is sad that this even has to be said. There are compelling consequentialist arguments against plain packaging, but in a free society they shouldn’t have to be made at all.

Edit: Angry Exile gives an interesting correction in the comments:

A slight correction from an expat Down Under. They're not going to be plain white boxes but plain olive, a colour the Health Minister tells us has been determined by trick cyclists as psychologically the most unattractive to smokers (yes, really), and with the obligatory big death cancer horror picture in the middle - example of one proposed design here.