Plain packaging review must look at all the evidence

The latest installment of the plain packaging saga is expected to arrive before the end of the month. After the initial public consultation found that two-thirds of those who responded were opposed to the idea, the government announced in November that it had appointed Sir Cyril Chantler to carry out a further review of the evidence. From the outset, Chantler made it clear that his review would be limited in scope. It is, he said, ‘not concerned with legal issues such as competition, trade-marking and freedom of choice’, but will look only at ‘any public health effects’.

If Sir Cyril was hoping to analyse hard evidence, his task is an unenviable one. Even the keenest supporters of plain packaging accept that there isn’t any. As Nicola Roxon, the Australian minister who led the world’s first and – so far – only successful plain packs campaign, said of the UK’s fact-finders, “These people are asking for evidence that can’t exist yet”. Looking at the Australian smoking rate won’t help because, as the British Lung Foundation admits, plain packaging “won’t make smokers quit. We know that.” The only ‘evidence’ that plain packaging will reduce smoking initiation continues to be a bunch of surveys in which teenagers are asked whether they like the look of the standarised packs less than they like existing packs. The slogan of the UK’s state-sponsored pro-plain pack campaign – ‘Move On. There’s Nothing to See’ – has become ironically appropriate.

By playing down expectations, campaigners have freed themselves from having to produce results this year, next year or even this decade. If there is any benefit from the policy, it will, according to Nicola Roxon, “most likely be seen much further into the future.” It is possible that this is true, but it is not very helpful to those who are charged with finding evidence. The case for plain packaging therefore still rests on a hunch. Whichever way Sir Cyril’s thumb turns will depend on his own subjective view.

But there is a bigger issue here that highlights the problems with ‘evidence-based policy’ as practised by modern governments. Sir Cyril has made it clear that his review will only look at one part of picture – ‘public health effects’ – but he acknowledges that there are other important issues at stake such as intellectual property, competition, black market activity and even ‘freedom of choice’. Where are the government reviews into the effect of plain packaging on these factors? Perhaps they will be carried out after Sir Cyril reports back, but so far there has been only a deafening silence.

This silence is all the more peculiar considering that there actually is evidence that could be drawn upon with regard to these issues. There are experts that could be consulted on the questions of whether plain packaging would violate trade agreements and IP rights, and the figures coming out of Australia in the fifteen months since plain packs were introduced indicate a rise in the sale of illicit and counterfeit cigarettes alongside the first increase in legal tobacco sales in five years. Earlier this month, Belgium rejected plain packaging on the basis that it had fuelled the black market in Australia. The policy has also been rejected by Mexico, South Africa and the European Union. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particular outspoken in her opposition to the proposal and a number of countries have already complained to the World Trade Organisation about Australia’s unilateral attack on intellectual property rights.

Surely the government is not going to make a decision on a policy without ordering a thorough review of all significant issues, not just the potential ‘public health effects’? A policy based on partial evidence cannot claim to be evidence-based at all. Of course, an element of guesswork is inevitable when assessing the merits of a policy which even its supporters admit will have no effect for years to come, but if politicians are prepared to roll the dice, the dice should not be weighted.

Head of Lifestyle Economics, IEA

Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA. He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion and Velvet Glove; Iron Fist. His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. He has authored a number of papers, including "Sock Puppets", "Euro Puppets", "The Proof of the Pudding", "The Crack Cocaine of Gambling" and "Free Market Solutions in Health".