Beware the unintended consequences of plain packaging

This week, Ireland became the fourth country to introduce mandatory plain packaging for tobacco. After Australia, France and the United Kingdom, Ireland attempts to be on the forefront of what seems to be the future of EU anti-tobacco policy.

From now on, all tobacco products will have to be sold in a standardised pack with a greenish colour, attempting to put off consumers and especially children and young adults.

The idea for plain packaging was pushed in Brussels by an Italian pro-regulation advocate called Alberto Alemanno. The activist penned “The Case for Plain Packaging” in the European Journal of Risk Regulation, with an underlying tone showing clear support for the measure.

However, even Alemanno warned against the legal problem of “not establishing a causal link between the measure and the protection of the specific public interest,” something France and the UK have consciously ignored. This has and will lead to multiple lawsuits by the tobacco industry, as has been the case for the latest EU Tobacco Directive, which also increased the size of warning labels on packs of cigarettes.

However, the problem of plain packaging reaches further than endless lawsuits regarding intellectual property. As the first country to introduce plain packaging, Australia has already gathered experience on the issue. At the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, a 2014 studyanalysed the 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.”

The French numbers should be equally depressing for plain packaging advocates: In the République, 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.

The most important argument against plain packaging however is that of tobacco counterfeiting. A 2015 study by the audit company KPMG revealed that France is the biggest consumer of fake tobacco in Europe, with an estimated sale of 9 billion cigarettes. With the introduction of similarly looking cigarette packs, Ireland has now also eased the work of black market operators.

The latter not only sell cheaper, but considerably more harmful cigarettes: the “fake” smokes use paper that doesn’t stop burning when the consumer stops smoking, increasing the risk of fire in case the lit cigarette is left somewhere.

More dangerous than these environmental hazards are the ingredients themselves: counterfeit cigarettes use three times more cadmium—which can cause renal failure orinjuries to the live—and arsenic—which has been proven to cause lung cancer. These cigarettes have also been found to contain hair, cement, and mouse feces.

UK-estimates released by the Local Government Association have put the level of cadmium in counterfeit cigarettes at around 500 percent higher than ordinary brands, making them considerably more dangerous to consume.

It is a classic example of the politics of the seen and the unseen. While plain packaging sounds like a sensible idea in theory, its long-term effects can be majorly detrimental to public health. It is easy to imagine that low-wage earners, confronted with the steadily increasing price of tobacco, are the most vulnerable to tobacco counterfeiters selling for a fraction of the price.

Plain packaging is a political act of political virtue-signalling. It doesn’t reduce tobacco consumption and eases the work of a dangerous counterfeiting mafia. It belongs in the dustbin of creative Nanny State policy.

This article was first published by the Hibernia Forum.

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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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