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Christopher Snowdon: Plain packaging proposals for cigarettes may actually harm the public

ChrissnowdonbiophotoChristopher is the author of a new Adam Smith Institute report entitled "Plain Packaging: Commercial expression, anti-smoking extremism and the risks of hyper-regulation" (PDF). He is also the author of books such as 'Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: The History of Anti-Smoking' and 'The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, panic and prohibition since 1800'.

The coalition of state-funded anti-smoking groups have started revving up their trusty public relations machine for yet another legislative campaign. While their temperance counterparts concentrate on minimum pricing, the anti-tobacco lobby has its heart set on ‘plain packaging’. The packaging will, in truth, be anything but plain. If we are to follow Australia’s example—where a plain packaging law has been passed, but not yet introduced—cigarette packs will show a very large photo of a tumour or corpse against a green-brown background. The White Album, this is not.

This parody of anti-smoking fanaticism is not a public health policy in any recognised sense. Even its strongest advocates do not pretend that it will educate or inform. On the contrary, as the British Brands Group says, plain packaging is a “move in the opposite direction to other Government policies, leading to less informed, empowered consumers, less competition and markets that work less well”.

It is one thing to force a manufacturer to label a product with a warning, but quite another to confiscate the packaging in its entirety to create public propaganda from private property. Rather than helping people make informed decisions, it seems that the overriding goal of plain packaging is to annoy the tobacco industry, inconvenience retailers and stigmatise consumers. Few of us will feel especially sympathetic towards the cigarette companies, but hard cases make bad law and the senseless trampling on property rights, along with the likelihood that the temperance lobby and diet police will emulate the anti-smoking trailblazers (as ever), has implications that go far beyond tobacco.

The unambiguous attack on commercial expression and intellectual property that plain packaging represents should be enough for a government dominated by Conservatives and Liberals to reject it. It is, however, possible that the Coalition will be minded to throw the health lobby a bone after angering them with NHS reforms and its perceived cosiness with the food and drinks industries. This would be a mistake for two reasons. Firstly, the health lobby can never be pacified. It has a long list of prohibitions it wishes to impose on society and their shrill demands will not cease until civil society stands up to them.

Secondly, there are sound consequentialist grounds to oppose the policy. There is no evidence whatsoever that the sight of a cigarette pack encourages nonsmokers to take up a notoriously unhealthy habit, and even ASH do not claim that it will have any effect on existing smokers. Numerous focus groups, including ASH’s own “citizen’s jury”, have expressed profound scepticism about the prospects of plain packaging lowering the smoking rate. An ASH survey in 2008 found that it was the least popular of the dozen policy suggestions the pressure group was considering. It has only risen to the top of ASH’s policy agenda because politicians capitulated to their other demands so quickly that they were unable to think of anything else to justify their continued funding and prestige.

Although plain packaging has little hope of achieving its stated goal, the unintended consequences are likely to be unpleasant. According to HM Revenue and Customs, tobacco fraud costs the British treasury £2.2 billion a year in foregone income. 190 billion fake cigarettes are made each year in China alone and 65% of the cigarettes seized in the EU are counterfeit. Under ASH’s proposals, all packs will have to be the same shape and have the same dimensions. All packs will be the same colour and all packs will show the name of the brand in the same simple font. This is a law that might as well have been written by counterfeiters.

Despite the absence of evidence that plain packaging will do any good and the likelihood that it will do harm, campaigners will claim that the policy will at least “send a message”. Indeed it will, but it will not be the message the anti-smoking lobby has in mind. The real message that will be sent if the plain packaging advocates prevail is that there is no policy too preposterous that it cannot be enshrined in law on the cynical and disingenuous pretext of protecting children. It will be the triumph of a dogmatic minority over a government which claims to be opposed to “unnecessary legislation” and “excessive regulation”. It will send a message that laws masquerading as public health initiatives are no longer constrained by evidence, reason or common sense. Indiscriminate, frivolous and illiberal, the endorsement of plain packaging will serve to confirm the old adage that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


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