Government’s plain packaging proposals for cigarettes will bring no benefits to public

20th February 2012

·     There is no evidence that the proposals will reduce consumption or give any public health benefit.

·     Plain packaging may lead to an increase in the counterfeit cigarette trade, making cheap tobacco more easily available to young would-be smokers.

·     The policy creates a dangerous precedent – plain packaging could be extended to other products such as alcohol and fatty foods.

Ahead of a public consultation on the plain-packaging of cigarettes, the Adam Smith Institute have released a report today (Monday) arguing that the proposals will do nothing for public health and are profoundly illiberal. There is no evidence that plain packaging will have any effect on existing smokers or the smoking rate. The policy represents a desperate attempt by the public health lobby and government officials to be seen as ‘clamping down’ on tobacco in an increasingly maniacal war on smoking.

No Health Benefits

The plain packaging rule is aimed at stopping non-smokers from making a decision to engage in a habit. However, there is no evidence that the colour and logos on a pack of cigarettes is an influencing factor on people choosing to start smoking. Indeed, in the case of increasing the graphic warnings on packs, a comprehensive Canadian study found that “the warnings have not made a discernable impact on smoking prevalence”. Previous studies show that packaging design does little to impact the smoking rate.

Smoking numbers have not changed since 2007 with the rise of the ‘denormalisation’ of tobacco and aggressive anti-smoker policies. Aggressive anti-smoking policies don’t appear to work. Furthermore, plain packaging has been recognised as the weakest and least popular of ASH’s (Action on Health and Smoking) 12 anti-smoking policies proposed in 2008.

The Slippery Slope

Apart from the lack of health benefits there is also the risk that such a policy would be introduced for alcohol, fatty foods or sugary drinks. What happens today in tobacco tends to happen to other unhealthy products tomorrow. In fact, this slippery slope trend has already started in Australia, where they are currently planning to introduce plain packaging. As soon as the Australian government had approved the policy they swiftly moved on to look at how this could be applied to alcohol. Once plain packaging is enshrined in law for tobacco it will be easily extended to other lifestyle choices. That’s why the Adam Smith Institute argues the nanny state juggernaut must be stopped in its tracks.

Counterfeiting and intellectual property

In order to introduce plain packaging the government would need to breach international trade rules and confiscate tobacco companies’ intellectual property, without any proof that this would yield public health benefits.  Furthermore, there is reason to believe the policy will have a negative effect both on public health and the tobacco industry.

Already 1 in 9 cigarettes around the world is counterfeit, with counterfeit cigarettes often having two to three times the level of heavy metals found in legitimate brands. Plain packaging will mean the standardising of cigarette packaging, which will help illicit trade. The policy is likely to boost the black market in the UK, offering cheaper cigarettes more likely to lure young and new customers. Any illicit trade can only hinder efforts to reduce smoking, so plain packaging proposals may in reality be damaging for public health.

Plain packaging, if introduced, would be a triumph of a dogmatic minority over the public. It would be an indiscriminate, illiberal law with no basis in evidence, reason or commonsense, whilst masquerading as a public health initiative.  Author of the report Plain Packaging: Commercial expression, anti-smoking extremism and the risks of hyper-regulation, Christopher Snowdon, adds:

“It is extraordinary that a government which claims to be against excessive regulation should be contemplating a law which even the provisional wing of the anti-smoking lobby considered unthinkable until very recently. It seems that fanaticism has become institutionalised and a handful of extremists have become the de facto policy makers in matters related to tobacco. The public are gradually waking up to the fact that these neo-prohibitionists will never be satisfied. There is always another cause to campaign for, always new demands to be met. If it is not smoking, it is drinking. If it is not drinking, it is eating.

“Plain packaging is the most absurd, patronising and counterproductive policy yet advanced under the disingenuous pretext of ‘public health’. It will serve only to inconvenience retailers, stigmatise consumers and delight counterfeiters. Those who would dictate what we eat and drink are already incorporating plain packaging into their plans. It’s time to say ‘Enough.’ The monomaniacs have had their own way for too long.”