Christopher Snowdon: The plain truth about repackaging cigarettes

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THE tendency of pressure groups to move towards increasingly extreme positions is a familiar political phenomenon.

When the successful activist can only recapture the intoxicating feeling of victory by finding new causes to champion, the result is “mission creep”.

Take the Smokefree Action Coalition, for example. Originally formed to campaign for the smoking ban, they have since lobbied for graphic warnings on cigarette packs, higher tobacco taxes, a retail display ban and a ban on vending machines. It is a tribute to their campaigning prowess that politicians have capitulated to all these demands, but this string of easy victories has left them scraping the policy barrel.

Their latest wheeze is “plain packaging” which will abolish all branding on cigarette packs so that there is nothing left except a large photo of a tumour or corpse against a brown-green background.

This is such a far-out idea that even the neo-prohibitionist pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) never seriously contemplated it until very recently. ASH first mentioned it in 2008 when they surveyed the public about possible new policy demands, but it proved to be the least popular of the dozen ideas put forward.

Skip forward to the present day and plain packaging has risen to the top of the policy agenda, not because it has any great merit but because there are no other battles to fight. What else can they do? Congratulate themselves on securing one of the world’s most draconian smoking bans and retire gracefully? Never. Instead, a policy that was considered unthinkable only five years ago is now portrayed as essential. This is not so much mission creep as mission sprint.

ASH says plain packaging will deter people from smoking. They said the same thing when graphic warnings were introduced in 2008, but when the Public Health Research Consortium assessed the policy in 2010, they found that graphic warnings made no difference to the smoking rate, nor to how many cigarettes people smoked. The effect on young people, they concluded, was “negligible”. When ASH convened a “citizen’s jury” to discuss plain packaging, they found that people were “sceptical that branding encouraged people to start smoking or to continue smoking and so did not believe that plain packaging would reduce the number of smokers significantly”.

Subsequent focus groups have also expressed strong doubts about whether the policy will have any benefit. Ordinary people understand, as ASH apparently do not, that people do not start smoking because they are attracted by a logo. People buy cigarettes for what is in the pack, not what is on the packet.

Although there is no evidence that nonsmokers decide to take up the habit because they like the look of the pack, it is true that many smokers struggle to differentiate between cigarette brands in blind trials. Premium brands cost up to £2 more than the cheaper alternatives and this is where the real profit lies for cigarette manufacturers.

Little wonder, then, that the tobacco industry is strongly opposed to plain packaging, but annoying the industry by appropriating its trademarks is not a valid public health objective in itself. The most likely consequence of plain packaging is that smokers will abandon pricier brands for budget alternatives. Encouraging people to buy cheaper cigarettes seems a rather perverse anti-smoking strategy.

Then consider the effect on Britain’s already booming black market. According to HM Revenue & Customs, tobacco fraud costs the British treasury £2.2bn a year in foregone income.

In the last decade, there has been a significant growth in the market for counterfeit cigarettes made by organised criminals in completely unregulated environments. Around 190 billion fake cigarettes are made each year in China alone and 65 per cent of the cigarettes seized in the EU are counterfeit.

Under ASH’s proposals, all packs will have to be the same shape and have the same dimensions. All packs will be the same colour and all packs will show the name of the brand in the same simple font. This is a law that might as well have been written by counterfeiters. They will need to do no more than shove their identical cigarettes into identical packs and change the brand name according to their customers’ tastes.

Black marketeers will not be the only ones salivating at the thought of plain packaging. The temperance lobby and the diet police will be delighted to have another new avenue of nanny statism opened up to them.

The Smokefree Action Coalition naturally deny that this is the start of a slippery slope, just as they did when they campaigned for graphic warnings, but the British Medical Association now wants photos of diseased livers on wine bottles, and activists in Australia are already calling for “junk food” to be put in plain packaging. Mission creep again. It never ends.

* Christopher Snowdon is a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and author of a report Plain Packaging: Commercial expression, anti-smoking extremism and the risks of hyper-regulation.

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