5 years of plain packaging, 5 years of failures

On this day, Dec. 1, five years ago, the Australian government implemented the mandatory plain packaging of all tobacco products. This means that cigarettes, rolled tobacco, and the likes, can only be sold in packs that do not show the particular brand in question. This is to deter especially young people from getting their hands of the smokes.

Too bad that 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. It clearly showed 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 favor 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.”

No need however to look back as far as 2014: a 2016 study by the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing of the RMIT University if Melbourne, Australia slammed the policy as a complete failure. The authors of “Stubbing Out the Evidence of Tobacco Plain Packaging Efficacy: An Analysis of the Australian National Tobacco Plain Packaging Survey” also criticise the government of funding biased research, “In the first instance the Australian federal government paid over $3 million of taxpayer funds for a research project to accurately and factually evaluate the impact of the introduction of the plain packaging policy.

“While it is true to say that research was undertaken, data was collected and then analysed, it is not clear that the results of that research have been accurately described and disseminated to the Australian government, the Australian community, or the broader international community.”

It appears that the public policy analysts who “studied” the policy were the same people who advocated for it in the first place. Not very strange that the government proclaims it a success if they follow the biased researched of the policy’s own advocates.

Ever since the introduction in Australia, three European countries have followed its course: the UK, France, and Ireland. In France, the policy introduction was marked by a massive failure: the government had promised manufacturers to buy op them remaining coloured packs and ended up spending €100 million on cigarettes, just in order to literally just burn them.

Neutralizing the appearance of the cigarette packs has also made the life of tobacco counterfeiters considerably easier. What was once the intricate work of faking the branding of worldwide brands, who hold intellectual property on these appearances, is now the easy task of changing the name of the pack. Both Europe and Australia are now experiencing a rise in tobacco counterfeiting, with all the consequences that this black market entails.

With the unhealthy tendency of being inspired by Europe when it comes to policy, it probably won’t take long until public health tsars in the U.S. pick on plain packaging and make it compulsory as well.

Before they do, they need to be reminded of two things: first, they need to be pressured on the idea that public health policy needs to be evidence-based. Mere intentions do not make for good policy. And second, they need to listen to the 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat, and his “Seen and the Unseen.” Every intervention in the market has unintended consequences.

Let’s not make people get sick over them.


This article was first published by Newsmax.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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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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