The nanny state is on the forward offence at the moment. First we saw this government introduce plain packaging, and now the EU looks set to ban Menthol cigarettes thanks to ECJ upholding the 2014 Tobacco Products Directive.
Just as you think its okay to stick your head above the parapet, another restrictive law smacks you in the face. Consumer patronisation is reaching Fahrenheit, as the plain packaging laws for cigarettes (which passed with cross party support in a free vote) will come into effect soon. To see the trouble this policy will bring to both smokers and non-smokers alike, one need look no further than the policy’s record in Australia.
Homogeneous packaging of cigarettes understandably creates a bustling tobacco black market, which in turn looses government tax revenue (meaning tax rises in other areas will most likely occur) as well as making it much easier for underage people to get access to fags (the very people this policy is supposed to discourage from smoking). According to Breitbart, in Australia between 2010-2013 there has been a 36% rise in said demographic’s smoking rate. Without packaging to differentiate each brand premium cigarettes will fade away, meaning cheaper fags of a much poorer quality will become prominent in the market, as in Australia. In Australia loose tobacco and value cigarette (favoured by teens) sales have risen. Illicit smoking in general has too risen, meaning that when one factors this in, tobacco consumption hasn’t actually decreased (for more info on this see this 2013 KPMG Study). As Roy Ramm, a former commander of specialist Operations at New Scotland Yard, says, it would be “disastrous if the government, by introducing plain-packaging legislation, removed the simplest mechanism for the ordinary consumer to tell whether their cigarettes are counterfeit or not”. Counterfeiters and organised crime would benefit greatly from the move.
Government can’t afford to be losing revenues, as this policy assails the tobacco companies’ creative freedom (protected under article 17 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights), and thus they have every right to launch long costly lawsuits against the government. FTSE100 company Imperial Brands is following the example of Phillip Morris in Australia, and launching a challenge to the UK Government. Trademark/intellectual property compensation could cost the UK government £11 billion. The policy doesn’t correspond in a legal sense to the stipulations laid out in both the ‘trade-related intellectual property agreement’ and the ‘agreement on the technical barriers to trade. The policy also encourages diplomatic incidents and potential tariff wars with tobacco exporting countries like Cuba and Honduras, who continue to take the issue up at the WTO (alongside Ukraine, Norway and the Dominican Republic too).
Research in a 2013 study conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research turned up some worrying economic consequences plain packaging could have. In the Small Independent retail sector job losses were estimated to be up to 3,500, with insolvency rates in Convenience retailing expected to rise. Moreover tobacco’s aggregate annual contribution to the exchequer would be reduced at a cost in-between £219 to 348 million. Couple this with both a 12 to 22 % reduction in Tobacco’s indirect contribution to UK GVA, and an estimated loss of in-between 2,250 and 3,850 FTE (full time equivalent) jobs around the Tobacco Manufacturing Industry.
Even those who advocate Plain Packaging like Jennifer McDonald of LSE, often concede that the effects of Plain Packaging on smoking prevalence are ambiguous. Our government is about to obtrude on the rights of consumers and producers, as well as catalyse negative economic repercussions, and all for a policy that is considered ambiguous and lacking clear supportive data.
Smoking isn’t even an economic burden on the NHS anymore (unlike sugar and alcohol), as according to this FULLFACT report the direct tax and duty more than make up for the aforementioned health costs. This will disappear though, as the inevitable rise of the illicit tobacco market will loose the government significant amounts of said tax revenue. Smoking might not be your vice, but your vice will follow soon if this trend is allowed to manifest. Citigroup was being conservative when it declared that plain packaging was the “biggest regulatory threat to the industry“; plain packaging is just as big a regulatory threat to the sugar and alcohol industries too, which undoubtedly will soon face the same state coercion once this law comes into motion.
Speaking from personal experience as a former smoker who recently kicked the habit, I can tell you that I’ve never met anyone (adult or teenager) who started smoking because they thought the packaging was cool. I’ll admit that I was influenced by brand identity to try different packs within the Premium section, however this came long after my decision to take up smoking. In the UK we rightfully have gruesome pack warnings and receive education on the copious amount of health risks associated with smoking, these two factors obscure branding in a literal sense and psychological sense respectively. Plain packaging is an unnecessary middle finger to rational citizens.
This battle of UK public health has broadly been won, we’re now standing on an alarming periphery, and teetering on infringing civil liberties: it’s time to move on from the focus on tobacco control and face the bigger targets, and let what I call “the insider” fever drop in UK political precedence. Measures like plain packaging, children in the car smoking ban, ubiquitous indoor smoking bans (the German system is more favourable) and the curtain, are akin to flogging a dead horse; all they do is create unnecessary hassle, and serve only pabulum bureaucrats eager to flex more power. By keeping the pressure on the much beleaguered tobacco industry you give politicians a scapegoat to avoid more important public health issues. Lets extinguish this insipid, self-defeating and abrasively un-liberal policy!
For more on this, look at the pressure group ‘Hands off our Packs’ website.