I suppose you have to try policies out before you conclude whether they've worked or not. But now we've tried out plain packaging and it didn't work according to its own aims, can we maybe give up on it? A new paper from scholars at the RMIT in Melbourne, aptly entitled "The Plain Truth about Plain Packaging: An Econometric Analysis of the Australian 2011 Tobacco Plain Packaging Act", and the first proper study of the scheme, brings the news.
Ronald Coase famously argued that if you tortured the data long enough they would confess. In this paper we have tortured the data, but there has been no confession. At best, we can determine the plain packaging policy introduced in December 2012 has not reduced household expenditure of tobacco once we control for price effects, or the long-term decline of tobacco expenditure, or even the latent attributes of the data.
To the contrary, we are able to find a suggestion that household expenditure of tobacco has, ceteris paribus, increased. In our forecasting exercise the actual data come close to breaking through the 80 per cent confidence interval. While we do not want to over-emphasise these results, we do conclude that any evidence to suggest that the plain packaging policy has reduced household expenditure on tobacco is simply lacking.
Of course, the ASI had already been suggesting this is the result we would find based on simpler analyses; and don't forget that it is not a costless policy. If smokers derive extra pleasure when they smoke from getting their cigarettes from attractive branded packets then this is a benefit of branded packets, not a cost. And note that underage or young smokers, typically short of cash, tend to smoke cheaper cigarettes—Richmonds and Mayfair were my friends' choices when they were 14.
Funnily enough, this paper's release coincides with new evidence from the Office for National Statistics that e-cigs do not bring non-smokers into the tobacco fold.
E-cigarettes are almost exclusively used by smokers and ex-smokers. Almost none of those who had never smoked cigarettes were e-cigarette users.
Not really a surprise. But then even if e-cig users did include some who had never smoked before, this doesn't imply that they moved from (safe) e-cigs to (dangerous) cigarettes. What's more e-cigs have a number of benefits, that I tried to sum up when the EU tobacco directive came up in April, as part of a case that the anti-smoking crackdown has gone too far.
(If I was writing today I might add 6. Smoking substantially reduces Parkinson's Disease risk, especially if you do it lots and don't stop and this is true for other diseases as well).
The point is not that we should all start smoking, although there is actually a good case that nicotine is a nootropic—see the first link above—it is more that smoking has substantial benefits to the individual (as well as the noted health costs), and relatively low net costs to society, especially when you factor in the huge amount smokers pay through tobacco taxes. When we turn 'smoking' into 'smoking e-cigs' the costs evaporate, probably entirely, and the benefits remain.
Cracking down on traditional tobacco may have gone too far—but cracking down on ecigs is crazy.