Red faces for plain packaging champions: It had no impact in Australia!December 11, 2017
Having considered plain packaging regulations for Malaysia, the Health Ministry may be relieved that it hasn’t rushed to push legislation on this controversial strategy.
Five years after the introduction of plain packaging in Australia, the results are embarrassing for those who said it would dramaticially reduce tobacco consumption.
The much-touted Aussie plain packaging laws mandate that cigarette packs must exclude brand indentifiers such as colours or logos and the pack colour must be pantone 448 C opaque couché — chosen by market research as the world’s ugliest colour.
However in the first 12 months of the branding ban in 2012, the number of cigarettes sold in Australia rose for the first time in years, and smoking rates proceeded to statistically flat-line for the next three years according to stats on the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website.
In Britain, by contrast, unfettered by plain packaging regulations cigarette sales have been in continuous free fall, and the smoking rate has dropped by a fifth since 2012.
Why rake over these facts now? Well, back in 2013, politicians in several companies including the UK said they wanted to wait for evidence to emerge from Australia before making a decision on plain packaging. We can now see that it hasn’t worked.
Five years ago, critics of Australia’s policy had three major concerns. They said that plain packaging wouldn’t affect people’s decision to smoke, it would be a boost to illicit trade, and it would lead to a slippery slope of regulation in which every product that displeases nanny state-ists would become fair game.
In response, anti-smoking campaigners said that plain packaging opponents were fear-mongering, deluded victims of tobacco industry propaganda.
The record shows who was right.
After the unexpected rise in cigarettes sales following the introduction of plain packaging, the Australian government started hiking up tobacco taxes at an extraordinary rate. Tobacco excise has gone up by 13 per cent every year since December 2013.
This has helped suppress much more expensive legal cigarette sales, albeit at a slower rate than in the UK, but the combination of higher taxes and the abolition of intellectual property led to an unprecedented surge in black market activity, home-growing, and smuggling.
The problem got so bad that the Australian border force formed a tobacco strike team in October 2015, and intercepted 400 tonnes of illicit tobacco in its first two years.
A huge tobacco smuggling syndicate was busted in August 2017, when 570 police officers raided homes and businesses across Sydney. Multi-million dollar tobacco crops are regularly discovered in the outback, but for every tonne of tobacco that is intercepted, many more tonnes make it to the streets.
Meanwhile, as predicted, campaigners have set their eyes on plain packaging for alcohol, junk food, and sugary drinks.
Earlier this year, the prize-winning scientist Wolfram Schultz complained about the “colourful wrapping of high energy foods” and suggested that plain packaging would be a step towards “regulating the desire to get more calories”.
Just weeks ago, an editorial in the Lancet said that it was “not unimaginable that bottles of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which once bore the artwork of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, might one day be required to have plain packaging and images of oesophageal cancer or a cirrhotic liver”. How delightful.
Plain packaging has had no positive effect on people’s health in Australia. It was never likely to. The whole idea made a mockery of evidence-based policy and it is no surprise that those who advocated it are keen to move on to the next campaign.
One of the side effects of plain packaging regulations is that Australia is fighting a needless and wholly avoidable war with black marketeers who in the absence of brand competition, have developed their own untaxed brands and sell them illegally around Australia at lower prices.
There is every sign that illicit tobacco is back on the rise in the UK as well. Intellectual property rights have been trampled and a Pandora’s Box has been opened – all for something to which smokers have reacted with a shrug of the shoulders.
Politicians may be too proud to repeal this foolish piece of legislation, but perhaps they will wait for evidence next time.
Chris Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, and author of The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800.