Plain packaging is doing nothing to reduce tobacco consumption

With the introduction of the first plain packaging legislation for tobacco worldwide in 2012, Australia inspired European countries to follow its example. Both the UK and France now impose similar legislation on tobacco companies, with widespread unintended consequences. It turns out that the measure has no effect on consumption and, even worse, makes life easier for tobacco counterfeiters who are often linked to international terror. These consequences should serve as clear indicators for legislators to drop plain packaging rules all together.

When it came to being a primer on plain packaging legislation, France tried to win the race. As the first European country to introduce the plain packaging of tobacco, following Australia’s example, former Minister of Health Marisol Touraine wanted a bold switch from the coloured cigarette packs to the new green-ish plain packaging, which is now compulsory for sales. The legislation intends to discourage smoking overall, reducing public health concerns related to smoking.

Not only was the implementation disastrous — with the French government spending €100 million to buy up the remaining stock of coloured packs — the foreseeable indifference of the consumers has now been proven as well. The overall consumption of tobacco has not shown a marked decline, it hasn’t even fallen by a bit: in fact, there’s been a 0.9 per cent increase in tobacco sales in the period 1st of January – 31st of June 2017 in comparison to 2016, rising from 22.69 to 22.9 billion cigarettes sold. Additionally, the sales of loose tobacco (to roll cigarettes) increased by 3.6 per cent over the first three months of 2017, despite the introduction of a new tax on this product, intended to discourage its use.

At the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, a 2014 study analysed the (possible) effects of plain packaging on the smoking prevalence of minors in Australia, they found that for young people between the age of 14 and 17, the neutral packaging had absolutely no effects on their consumption:

“Altogether, we have applied quite liberal inference techniques, that is, our analysis, if anything, is slightly biased in favour of finding a statistically significant (negative) effect of plain packaging on smoking prevalence of Australians aged 14 to 17 years. Nevertheless, no such evidence has been discovered. More conservative statistical inference methods would only reinforce this conclusion.”

 When it comes to adults, we have to realise that we are constantly confronted with advertising on a weekly, daily, and hourly basis. Not to say that advertisement is without effect, because it clearly is not; but you tend to develop a certain kind of neutrality to it, since the mere quantity of ads hitting you is so immense. These companies trying to sell you their goods come up with ever more extravagant and new ways to make them entertaining: you’re being bombarded via mail, email, before watching a video online, while watching a video online, on Facebook, Twitter, on TV, radio, and so on.

Knowing all this, there still remains a political class that sincerely believes that the mere fact there are coloured packages (of which half the pack is already covered in horrible warning labels) behind the counter at your local newspaper stand will make you buy them, and not your interest in tobacco in itself. Someone should tell Coca-Cola that running ads is pointless – just put your cans behind the counter.

This point of view is nothing but infantilising. Let’s be real, the information of the effects of tobacco are out there, they are not an untold mystery. Everything from here is pure Nanny-State logic: the same one that is used to tell people what to eat, drink, and how to live their lives.

Dictating to tobacco companies how to market their franchise is one thing, given the situation of tobacco regulation today, but this government intervention goes too far. The colouring and fonts of the different cigarette brands is the only marketing power tobacco companies now have, since most countries ban advertisements. Adding this to the fact that in the same countries, smoking in most public places (and private places such as bars, nightclubs and restaurants) is banned, and a large portion of sales go to taxes, are we really to believe that big tobacco deserves no margin of marketing whatsoever?

The consequences of these policies, however, may prove far worse than just the usual nanny state restrictions on individual freedom. Plain packaging has made it easier to sell fake smokes on the black market, as all the packs look the same. In fact, Australia, which introduced plain packaging in 2012, saw a 30 percent increase in tobacco counterfeiting within two years. In France, a 2015 report (before the implementation of plain packaging regulations) found the République to be Europe’s largest consumer of fake cigarettes, with 15 percent of the market share. This rate can only be expected to go up.

Far worse: the French Centre d’analyse du terrorisme (Centre for Terrorism Analysis) even showed that 20 per cent of international terrorism is financed by illicit tobacco sales. Organisation such as the IRA, Al-Qaida and ISIS finance their activities that way.

Plain packaging is doing nothing to reduce tobacco consumption: this form of tobacco control actually makes things worse. French philosopher and economist Frédéric Bastiat’s “Seen and the Unseen” of unwanted consequences of public policy has been proven yet again. Now it’s time to convince the policymakers to listen.


This article was first published by CommentCentral.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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