Plain Packaging – Questions that need answering
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●‘ Plain’ or ‘standardised’ packaging bans the use of company logos, colours and trademarks on a product’s packaging and allows governments to design the outward appearance of goods.
On tobacco products in Australia, this has meant the vast majority of tobacco packaging is taken up by large graphic images of tumours, gangrene and other diseases.
● The UK’s Department of Health (DoH) launched a public consultation into plain packaging for tobacco products in 2012. After 64% of respondents opposed the policy, the proposed implementation was put on hold. The Government cited wishes to monitor the impact of the policy in Australia as key in this decision.
● Following severe criticism from the Labour party, the Department of Health commissioned Sir Cyril Chantler to conduct a limited review of plain packaging in November 2013, focusing solely on the potential effect of plain packaging on smoking prevalence. Newspaper sources suggested the decision to commission the report was made with political considerations in mind.
● With no new evidence in the intervening period, even from Australia, the Chantler report used the very same evidence that the government found unpersuasive in 2013 to argue for plain packaging. Most of these studies ask smokers and young people whether they find ‘plain’ packs less attractive than conventional packs. This tells us little about whether anyone starts smoking as a result of seeing a cigarette pack of any particular design. A significant amount of evidence from Australia now suggests unintended consequences of plain packaging, however. Sales of cigarettes rose by 0.3 per cent in 2013. A study by the global accounting firm KPMG reported a 154 per cent rise in the sale of illicit, branded cigarettes. Official Australian government figures also show that the number of seizures of illicit tobacco rose by 60 per cent between 2011/12 and 2012/13.
● There is significant opposition to plain packaging on the international stage due to its undermining of intellectual property. Several countries have filed complaints with the World Trade Organisation against Australia, with a further 35 countries prepared to join the dispute as third parties. These legal challenges remain unresolved. Experts believe that the British government could be liable for compensation claims estimated to amount to as much as £5 billion.
●A survey conducted by Roy Morgan Research in 2013 found that plain packaging is putting a strain on small retailers in Australia. 78% experienced an increase in the time taken to serve adult smoker customers and 62% report additional time is spent communicating with these customers about tobacco products. It is unclear how plain packaging would fit into the declared hope for deregulation.
● Following the ‘success’ of the plain packaging campaign, others are now seeking to lobby for plain packaging for certain food products, alcohol and even gambling machines.
● Australia remains the only country in the world to have enacted a plain packaging law. Similar proposals have been rejected in South Africa, Mexico, Germany and other countries. After two years’ deliberation on the Tobacco Products Directive at an EU level, a unilateral decision by Britain to move to plain packaging is not in the spirit of market harmonisation.
● Given that the Chantler review only examined patchy evidence of the possible effects of plain packaging on smoking prevalence, the government can only seriously consider proceeding if it undertakes extensive reviews on the effects on intellectual property, counterfeiting, smuggling, tax evasion and trade disputes.
The publication was featured by Christopher Snowdon in an interview for BBC Five Live.
2014, Briefing Paper 14:02