plain packaging

A plain pack of lies


BBC News tells us that: “A law introducing plain cigarette packaging in England and Wales could come into force in 2016 after ministers said MPs would be asked to vote on the plan before May's general election.” We really are seeing the thin end of the wedge here as yet another misjudged interference in the free market looks set to take place. The confusion that people like Public Health Minister Jane Ellison harbour is that they only seem to think of smoking in terms of bodily damage. Yes, if you only want to think about smoking in terms of the effects of physical degeneration on body parts, then cigarettes are a terrible thing, and plain packaging can be argued for on those (albeit flimsy) grounds. But only a fool would do that. Jane Ellison is presumably aware that many people still smoke even though they have full knowledge of how bad cigarettes are for them. With this knowledge she ought to have a clue that there is a reason people smoke in spite of knowledge of its degenerative effects – they enjoy doing it. Clearly people who voluntarily hand over money to buy and smoke cigarettes have accounted for cigarettes being bad for your health, but have still concluded that the positive effects of smoking outweigh those negatives. Ben Southwood's blog on smoking is particularly appropriate here.

Contrary to the 'plain packaging' lobby's misapprehension, it is trivially obvious, that smoking is only entirely bad for you if you forget all the reasons that it is good for you. The trouble with going down this road is that if you consider only the costs, then just about everything is bad for you. Take drinking water. By only counting the costs you'd find drinking water is a pretty disagreeable action - it brings about increased urination, it causes time lost in the toilet, it engenders increased chlorine levels in your stomach, and it causes gradual damage to your detrusor muscle in the bladder. Drinking water - one of the most innocuous activities we can undertake - has risks and it has costs, but no one thinks it's bad for you in net terms. Quite the contrary, in places where water is scarce we do all we can to make it plentiful.

Governments interfere too much by focusing only on costs and ignoring benefits. It’s unsurprising that people like Jane Ellison want to trespass into other people’s free choices so much – she’s only aspiring to do what the state does on a frequent basis.  This is the simple and straightforward reason why I'm a libertarian, and why I hold the view that a small government is best. People know how to run their lives better than any government. That's not a blanket truism, but it's true for the vast majority of people, and it's true in the majority of ways that relate to how we live our lives by making cost-benefit analyses and exercise our freedom of choice. Politicians are quick to interfere or ban things that have costs, which often involves failing to appreciate that humans can decide for themselves whether those costs are worth paying.

Because it is impossible for the state to know how much every individual values health, exercise, weight training, smoking, alcohol, and so forth, it is impossible for the government to know better than its citizens what is good for them. A good government would understand this, and seek to minimise its involvement in our lives to enhance our welfare and liberty, as the quality of welfare and the benefits of liberty are synchronised to enable people to voluntarily undertake the activities they prefer.

The doctors are on the rampage again


We've a letter in the BMJ signed by some thousands of doctors over plain packaging of cigarettes:

The government is heading for an explosive new year showdown with doctors who fear it is in danger of giving cigarette companies a late Christmas present by pulling out of a major anti-tobacco initiative.

Nearly 4,000 health professionals, including the presidents of many of the leading royal colleges, have signed an open letter to the prime minister and the health secretary, published on Sunday on the British Medical Journal website, expressing alarm that plans to force cigarette manufacturers to sell their products in plain packs may not be introduced before the general election, as had been expected.

The number of doctors signing the letter – 3,728 – is five times greater than the number who recently signed an open letter supporting a ban on smoking in cars, a health initiative the government has confirmed it will introduce. The thousands of signatories underscore the strength of feeling about the issue within the medical community.

We've indicated here before our suspicion of the emergency with which this particular question is being addressed. The government says that it must follow EU rules about consultation, the doctors are saying damn that and do it now. But why now? Our suspicion is that they want it enacted into law before the evidence that it doesn't actually work becomes more widely appreciated:

Australian Bureau of Statistics' data show that there has been a secular decline in the chain volume of tobacco sales since the 1970s, but this began to go into reverse in the first year of plain packaging (see graph below). In three out four quarters in 2013, sales were higher than they had been in the last quarter before plain packaging was implemented. This unusual rise in tobacco sales only came to end in December 2013 when a large tax rise on tobacco (of 12.5 per cent) was implemented, thereby leading to a fall in the following quarter.

Screaming that we've a major problem that requires action is sometimes valid. Whether you think that plain packaging is such is up to you. But it does boggle the mind that so much effort is being given to the implementation of a policy that doesn't actually achieve its predicted result. It's rather like the similar public health campaign for minimum alcohol prices. They seem to have got the bit between their teeth and thus be completely incapable of seeing that they're proposing something that is just a terribly stupid way to try and achieve that stated goal.

What really worries here is that we're really quite sure that you've got to be reasonably bright to train as a doctor. So why is it that when it comes to these public health campaigns they all seem to have left their brains at home?

The last gasp for plain packaging


It's entirely possible to take a number of different views on the merits or not of the plain packaging proposal for cigarettes. An entirely unwarranted intrusion into commercial freedom by the usual prodnoses perhaps, a vital public health policy as some profess to believe. That we tend toward the former view while the prodnoses the latter isn't the point at issue here though. The interesting question is why is there such pressure for the law to be passed immediately?

The government is under fire from politicians on all sides amid fears that legislation forcing tobacco companies to sell cigarettes in plain packs will not be introduced before the general election.

MPs from all three main parties, including the Tory chair of the health select committee, have warned time is running out to introduce a law that would see cigarettes sold in unbranded packs, a measure experts claim would deter young people from smoking. .... In a letter to the health minister Jane Ellison, the Tory chair of the health select committee, Sarah Wollaston, warns “unless the government makes a final decision soon, time will run out for a debate and vote before the election”.

A failure to implement the legislation to introduce what Wollaston describes as “one of the most important public health reforms of the last 20 years” would, she argues, “be an unnecessary and serious setback for public health policy, if the clearly expressed will of parliament were now to be frustrated”.

A failure to introduce the measure would cause tension in the coalition. Lib Dem health minister Norman Lamb said: “This is a landmark public health issue. I want the government to act while we have time before the election. From a Lib Dem perspective, we want this legislation to go through and that’s what we will fight for.”

In April, Ellison confirmed the government’s intention to “proceed as swiftly as possible” on plain packaging, noting evidence that it would “very likely have a positive impact on public health”.In a letter to Ellison, Labour’s shadow health minister, Luciana Berger, called for guarantees that the legislation would get enough parliamentary time to become law. Berger said that if the measure was not voted on before the election “it would be seen as a major victory for the tobacco industry”.

Why the rush? After all, whoever actually wins the next election there will still be a Parliament, one that can and will pass any number of laws.

The answer is contained in this from Chris Snowdon:

Two years on, we now have enough data on tobacco sales and smoking prevalence to say with confidence that plain packaging has had no positive impact.

The reason they're leaping up and down and screaming now, Now! NOW! is that the evidence of the effectiveness of the idea is now coming in. And it simply doesn't work: it does not do what it is claimed it should do. Regardless of what you think about the desirability of curtailing commercial freedom in the cause of reducing smoking rates, plain packaging simply doesn't reduce smoking rates. But there's people emotionally and politically invested in the idea so they insist that this must be imposed before anyone has a chance to actually consider this evidence.

Aren't we all just so ecstatically happy at the way we are governed?

The plain truth about plain packaging

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.

1.  Nicotine has many substantial positive effects

2. Smokers overestimate the dangers of smoking

3. Passive smoking may not be dangerous (at least to women)

4. Smoking is social, enjoyable, creates identity and meaning, and relieves boredom

5. Lifetime health expenditure is lowest for smokers

(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.

Rolling down a slippery slope

Warnings about ‘slippery slopes’ are often overused by defenders of individual liberty. That’s probably inevitable, since we often end up defending a principle against a seemingly-pragmatic policy that, by itself, is not very objectionable.

For instance, I find it hard to muster any specific argument against energy efficiency labelling of washing machines, but the principle of letting people do what they want with their own stuff means that I’m still pretty suspicious of them. It’s hard to convince someone else who doesn’t already share my belief in that principle without resorting to things like slippery slope arguments .(First they label the washing machines – next it’ll be health warnings on cans of Coca-Cola!)

But, overused as they can be, slippery slopes really do exist. Tobacco regulation is an interesting example, because it's often used as the thin end of the wedge for other kinds of paternalism. After plain packaging of tobacco was passed in Australia (will the new, nominally Liberal government repeal this legislation?), its advocates moved straight on to calls for plain packaging of alcohol. To quote our 2012 paper:

Australian Senator Cory Bernadi recalls: “[O]n the very first day [after the plain packaging legislation was passed] they moved onto drinking. People who were advocating plain packaging were saying “We should have this for alcohol. We should have it in fast food”. Where does it end? The nanny state will never end because there is always another cause to advocate for.”

Some health groups in Australia have also called for plain packaging of ‘junk food’, whatever that is.

So it’s worrying when tobacco is treated as a special case in international trade agreements, as is happening in Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations between a number of major Pacific Rim countries, including Australia, the US, New Zealand and Japan.

The US and Malaysia have proposed exemptions for domestic tobacco control measures from the provisions of the Partnership. Not many people will object to that on its own, but here’s where the slippery slope problem comes in. Most free trade agreements are riddled with special exceptions, but using them to reinforce domestic paternalism is particularly ugly.

A free trade agreement that institutionalises tobacco as being ‘non-normal’ is a hop, skip and a jump from one that does the same for all sorts of other things that people probably would have a problem with being told are abnormal, like booze. And the infantilization of adults – much harder to pinpoint than the number of lives supposedly ‘saved’ by tobacco control measures – rolls on.