The plain packaging of tobacco products sets a dangerous precedent

The Australian government recently decided to homogenise tobacco products by forcing them into uniform packaging. A key question is whether ‘public health’ provides sufficient grounds for governments effectively to expropriate internationally recognised trademarks.

The importance of allowing branding in a free market (and therefore a free society) should not be underestimated. In particular, branding enables consumers to discriminate quickly between different products. It is an efficient way of transmitting information in the market. When a consumer purchases a respected brand, he can be confident about the product’s quality. This is a key argument against plain packaging.

John Noble, Director of the British Brands Group, explains:

Branding fulfils many significant and positive functions for both consumers and markets. Take it away and consumers lose out and markets become commoditised, with price rather than quality being the influencing factor.

This means that plain packaging is likely to give succour to the illicit tobacco trade. Ruth Orchard, Director-General of the Anti-Counterfeiting Group has stated:

Plain packaging represents an invitation to counterfeiting. If put into practice for the tobacco industry, this could impact on all sectors where counterfeiting is rife. It creates a trading environment where packaging is no longer distinctive and products become easy to replicate illegally.

As the IEA monograph Prohibitions sets out, there is a strong relationship between restrictive lifestyle legislation and the black market, where products are not safely tested and are sold to the more vulnerable sections of society.

There is also a significant danger that once the precedent has been set with plain packaging, similar legislation will be extended to other areas. For instance, Dr Simon Chapman, the chief proponent and figurehead of plain packaging in Australia, has publicly stated he would like to see graphic health warnings on alcohol products. Indeed it is important to note that ‘sin taxes’ and stronger licensing rules are already in the pipeline for non-tobacco products.

The Department of Health has announced that it will hold a public consultation on plain packaging in the coming spring. The coalition will debate the issue in parliament after assessing submissions from academics, an array of subsidised health lobbies, campaigners, researchers and writers. Most importantly it invites consumers and non-consumers to contribute to the consultation and to register their opposition to the removal of branding rights. A contribution, that, all those who believe in consumer choice, private property rights and individual responsibility, should pursue with vigour.

Amul Pandya is a researcher for the Hands Off Our Packs campaign.

3 thoughts on “The plain packaging of tobacco products sets a dangerous precedent”

  1. Posted 09/02/2012 at 13:34 | Permalink

    Liked most of tobacco control it is not about health, it is about the bullying and denormalisation of smokers and smoking.

    You maybe interested to know to know I did some research into cigarette versus drug consumption in Australian youth. Obviously the drugs are illegal and come in the plainest of packing.

    “According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey of Australians aged 14–19 years, in 2010:

    67 per cent had tried alcohol and just over one in five (21.1 per cent) were drinking alcohol on a weekly basis.
    One in five (21.5 per cent) had tried cannabis.
    Just under 12 per cent had tried tobacco and just under seven per cent smoked on a daily basis.
    Just over two per cent had tried amphetamines for non-medical reasons.
    4.7 per cent had tried ecstasy.
    2.1 per cent had tried inhalants – such as petrol, glue and solvents.
    2.1 per cent had tried cocaine.”

    With tobacco at 12% try rate, cannabis is at 21.5%, nearly twice as high.

    If you combine ecstasy, amphetamines, cocaine et al it adds up to 34.5% nearly three times as much as tobacco.

    Being evidence based is not the anti smoker’s strong point.

  2. Posted 09/02/2012 at 17:15 | Permalink

    I think plain packaging is an interesting idea. Maybe the same could be done for bank notes, then the bank of England would not have to use ‘quantitative easing ‘, we could do it ourselves.

  3. Posted 06/04/2012 at 20:00 | Permalink

    Now that the tobacco display ban has become law, I am prompted to ask a question to all you libertarians out there. You instinctively object to government regulation but base your arguments mainly upon the ineffectiveness of the regulation and its interference with commerce. However, just suppose (for argument’s sake) that there was incontrovertible evidence that a display ban was effective in reducing the take up of smoking by juveniles, would you still argue against such a ban? Don’t you think that the government has a duty to try to protect misled juveniles?

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