September 6, 2017

Plain packaging doesn’t work

The introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes has only served to fuel the sale of fake cigarettes on the black market. This and other unintended consequences mean the ban should be scrapped, argues Bill Wirtz. 

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.

5.00 avg. rating (95% score) - 2 votes
Bill Wirtz
Bill Wirtz
Bill Wirtz is a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center. He has written for Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, City AM, RealClear, The Daily Caller and CapX.
  • John M

    The whole notion of plain packaging of course has nothing to do with an effective method to reduce smoking and everything to do with making the tobacco control industry and politicians look like they are “doing something”, which for ASH and thier counterparts means extending thier lavish taxpayer funding and paying thier salaries.

    If policy was conducted in a business environment, funding would be contingent on achieving some measurable results. The miserable and minor reductions in smoking rates (whihc in recent years have vaping to thank more than anything) should be enough to prove that the measures proposed by ASH do not work and as such thier funding is now an ineffective use of public money.

  • emma2000

    As an adult smoker of more than 50 years I resent that I am no longer able to buy my favourite treat, Black Russian cigarettes, wisely the premium brands refused to further deface their distinctive packets. I would have some respect for a ban on smoking and giving up the taxes paid, but this gets more ridiculous by the day. Meanwhile attempts to legalise another plant, cannibis continue, what’s the difference as it is usually mixed with tobacco anyway. Of course a ban would be no more successful than it has proved to be with other drugs. Right now I am so fed up with the persecution of smokers with their own taxes that I would rather give the money to the smugglers!

  • Ravenscar

    I can’t do with the arrant hypocrisy, in the same moment ‘the great and the good’ are tacitly supporting the likes of clegg and branson [proscribed drugs – legalize It!]……………..nanny state and ‘those who know best’ -. most of those telling you not to do something ie smoke fags are in their ivory towers firing up the weed, taking E’s [uppers and downers tranks] and God knows what other proscribed ‘recreational drugs’.

    Yet, when I last looked tobacco is still LEGALLY sold and under licence via HMG.

    As if they truly care, “care” my ar*e, actually virtue signalling has no limits, hypocrisy is their, its only currency.

  • al

    Plain packaging has prevented cost comparison. One of the changes is that you cannot put a fixed price on a pack. This has increased prices and allowed the incumbent manufacturers to not be worried by upstarts running on lower margins

  • grumpyashell

    Politicians seem to have a total blank spot in differentiating between taxpayers money and governments….it is just theirs. There is no thought to cost effectiveness,no thought of making sure that the money spent will actually achieve what they want,worse they seem to have a belief in the phantasmagorical money tree.

  • Wally-Jumblatt

    Let’s say someone wanted to market a lower tar cigarette with marginally less health risks (not beyond the wit of tobacco chemists) -wouldn’t it be better to let them market their product against the ‘worse’ rivals.
    Every time the Nany State interferes, it gets it wrong.

  • blingmun

    Plain packaging obviously enables counterfeits. I am so disgruntled with anti-smoking bullying there is no fucking way I would grass on someone running counterfeit cigarettes. So they’ve pushed me far enough that they are now also encouraging lawlessness.

    Congratulations, authorities.

  • Bogbrush

    I don’t care anyway, people should be free to put whatever poison in their bodies they like just so long as they don’t pester me with the consequences.

  • BlueDave

    90% of any government’s poilcies

  • geo

    as usual … doing something even if its totally useless and costs a fortune (not their money) lets politicians pretend they have achieved something.

  • forgotten_man

    There is a shop near me that sells ‘Russian menthols’ …whatever THAT is, ‘under the counter’ and only to people they know.

    Run by Russians as it turns out.

    Bet there isn’t any tax being paid on those £8 a pack sales….

  • Hampsteadpinko

    That;s pretty foolish. Smoking is a bad health risk – I had a brain haemorrhage caused by smoking – and smoking rates in the UK have gone down quite a lot.
    Free market thinking is fine, but sometimes, as in this case, both foolish and self-defeating.

  • Dr Evil

    He is right though. Plain packs had no effect in Australia re smoking prevalence.

  • Dr Evil

    They should have analysed the data from Australia. Plain packaging encouraged smuggling. The only thing decreasing tobacco sales was increased taxes. Increasing taxes too much encourages smuggling. Ergo, plain packaging and insistence thereon will have no effect and is pretty stupid.

  • thumper_the_rabbit

    Ah, the ‘independent’ Bill Wirtz, the ‘independent’ analyst for the ‘independent’ Consumer Choice Cente (CCC).

    One of CCC’s main contributors is, surprise surprise, Big Tobacco. See https://corporateeurope.org/power-lobbies/2017/07/big-tobacco-and-right-wing-us-billionaires-funding-anti-regulation-hardliners .

    Are YOU that gullible as to believe Mr. Wirtz? Neither am I.

  • Bill Cook

    The Coca Cola Company might not, but that doesn’t mean there’d be fewer sales of cola overall. Sales would likely be redistributed across all manufacturers of cola drinks, but there’s no reason to think the market for them would reduce.

  • Bill Cook

    It should be pretty clear now that this was a rush to be seen to be doing something, with little more than optimism to back the assumption it would reduce smoking. Such changes should be evidence led, not hopeful stabs in the dark.

  • Cynical Ex Academic

    The simple fact is that advertising usually works, which is why it is a big industry. Whether it converts a confirmed adult non-smoker into a smoker is improbable, but it almost certainly persuades people to switch brands, and it might convert some immature people into becoming smokers. I don’t think that brand wars are anything to do with government, and starter smokers are a law unto themselves, so overall I don’t think these bans have any point.

  • springmellon

    Coca cola isn’t highly addictive.

  • ethanedwards2002

    I doubt that. IMO Plain packaging is a nonsense.

  • Only Me

    If Coca Cola cans were plain, would they sell as many ? Probably not

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