Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
This month, the Australian government standardised all packaging of tobacco products, heralding the start of ‘plain packaging’ in Australia. Cigarette packets are now wrapped in a green-brown colour, usually referred to as dark ‘olive green’, with large graphic warnings, and only the brand name and its variants are allowed to distinguish one product from another, in standardised font and size. The coalition government in Britain has held on consultation on introducing plain packaging for tobacco products across the United Kingdom, which closed in August 2012. The proposal follows the ban on tobacco advertising in 2003, a ban on smoking in public places and the increase of the legal smoking age from 16 to 18 in 2007, graphic warnings on all tobacco packets in 2009, the removal of all cigarette vending machines in England in 2011, and a ban on displaying tobacco products in shops currently being introduced. According to the BBC, “Plain packaging is seen by campaigners as the next step in discouraging young people from taking up smoking.”
Smoking prevalence throughout Britain has been falling for as long as it has been surveyed. According to Cancer Research UK: in 1948, when formal surveys on smoking in Britain began, 82% of men smoked some form of tobacco, whilst 65% of men were cigarette smokers. Cigarette smoking amongst men has subsided irregularly across the years, reaching 55% in 1970, plummeting to 28% in 1994, before tailing off to 21% in 2010. Smoking prevalence amongst women has always been less than that of men, fluctuating wildly between 37% and 45% in the period covering 1948 and 1944. In 1975, 40% of women smoked cigarettes, crashing to 26% in 1994, and then reaching 20% in 2010. A similar trend can been when considering the smoking rates amongst Britons between the ages of 16 and 19, where 40% of this age category smoked in 1975, but steadily declined to 29% in 2000, and then fell again to 19% in 2010, but spiked to 24% in 2009. The number of children aged between 11 and 15 that are estimated to have started smoking in England has severely oscillated, with 290,976 starting in 2000, whilst 318,974 children began in 2005, and only 156,979 children started smoking in 2010.
Whilst there were legislative measures prior to the comprehensive tobacco advertising ban, such as the ban on cigarette advertising on British television in 1965, all tobacco products carrying government health warnings in 1971, bans on smoking on the London Underground in 1984; all of these measures were championed due to the discovery of various dangers associated with smoking, prominently the causal link between smoking and lung cancer, with such knowledge seeping into public awareness.
The Inefficacy of Plain Packaging
The flurry of legislation since 2003 has actually coincided with a stagnation of the smoking rate, as opposed to forcing that rate into an aggressive tailspin. The failure of one ban now merely inflates the urgency of the next. The latest proposal, plain packaging, means all distinguishing features are removed from cigarette and tobacco packets, leaving only a vulgar image, accompanied with a stern warning about smoking, and small text detailing the brand and variant of tobacco.
Anne Jones, of the anti-smoking group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), said: “Plain packaging has taken the personality away from the pack. Once you take away all the colour coding and imagery and everything is standardised with massive health warnings, you really do de-glamorise the product.” The claim is made, as in the BBC article by Duncan Kennedy that “Cigarette packets were practically the last platform for tobacco companies to advertise themselves.” Packaging has never been considered advertising, which is why plain packaging was not a mandatory consequence of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002. In 2003, the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control defines “tobacco advertising and promotion” as “any form of commercial communication, recommendation or action with the aim, effect or likely effect of promoting a tobacco product or tobacco use either directly or indirectly.” Article 11 of that framework is entitled Packaging and Labelling of Tobacco Products – it requires that tobacco packaging carries warnings that are “large, clear, visible, and legible”, and the packaging must not “promote a tobacco product by any means that are false, misleading, deceptive or likely to create an erroneous impression about its characteristics, health effects, hazards or emissions”. Article 13 concerns Tobacco Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship, and is treated separately to the product’s packaging. Moreover, the framework seeks a “comprehensive ban on advertising, promotion and sponsorship”. Neither the World Health Organisation nor the British Parliament believes that tobacco packaging acts as a form of advertisement or promotion. An advertisement make claims and provides additional information about that product, whilst seeking to persuade a person to buy it. Packaging merely informs a person of that brand’s existence, and the size and content of the product held within.
The assertion that young people start smoking thanks to the latent ‘glamour’ of cigarette packaging is also extremely tenuous. Under the current legal regime, the ‘glamour’ of the current ‘glitzy’ packaging involves the company logo and a warning about the dangers of smoking, which cover between 30% and 40% of the packet. Since 2009, this warning must be a gruesome picture on the reverse side of the packet. There is very little ‘glamour’ in a diseased lung. Young people have near-universal knowledge of smoking’s implicit hazards, which has been the case for about two decades. The Office for National Statistics found in 2006: “Almost all pupils thought smoking causes lung cancer (98%), makes your clothes smell (97%), harms unborn babies (97%), can harm non-smokers’ health (96%) and can cause heart disease (94%). These proportions have remained at similar levels since the 1990s.” The upper limit of 100% is nearly attained, so making the cautionary labels larger, the warning more aggressive and deathly, and the images ever more shocking can only have tiny, imperceptible effects.
The interlocking web of previous legislation means there is very little that plain packaging can achieve. Children do not see any advertising for cigarettes anymore, and the ban on television advertising for tobacco is 47 years old. No-one under the age of 18 can legally buy tobacco, and smoking these products is banned in all public venues. Soon, cigarettes will be placed in a locked cabinet or underneath the counter in all stores in Britain. For plain packaging to have any significant effect, it must be that non-smokers see a branded package of cigarettes, possibly with their friends or family, and then overcome their knowledge about the hazards of smoking, in order to pursue this habit. It is the assertion the populace may be fooled and transfixed by ‘glitzy’ packaging and smart logos. Such an incredible claim must require extra-ordinary evidence, but none is offered. The current studies used to support plain packaging rely on asking people what packaging makes them think about the product. Such studies cannot calculate how many people will abstain from smoking, as their preferences are revealed by their actions, and not by surveyed answers. This is the reason for the negligible effect on smoking rates that graphic warnings have had.
Unleashing the Unintended Consequences
Plain packaging may be too ineffective to achieve its primary objective, but its introduction could unleash several unintended consequences. First, the differentiation between different varieties of tobacco products would be extinguished. Consumers would now only be able to choose their product based on price, which would mean that whilst fewer expensive cigarettes would be sold, cheaper cigarettes would be bought in greater volumes. This may mean there is no dramatic increase or decrease in the total amount of cigarettes bought and sold in Britain. Secondly, the standardised of packaging would make it easier to replicate by illegitimate sellers. The main way to identify legitimate packaging is through holograms and other special markings, so this consequence may not lead to a sharp increase in black market cigarettes. Third, it increases the time to sort and arrange cigarette products. Such an increase in costs will little effect on big retailers, but will hit small ones severely. According to the Guardian, James Yu, owner of the King of the Pack tobacconist in central Sydney, said plain packaging made it harder to stack his shelves: “It used to take me an hour to unload a delivery, now it takes me four hours”.
We are now reaching the endgame in the battle against smoking. Nearly everyone in Britain is aware of the dangers of smoking, after being informed of its hazards in schools, television, magazines, cinemas, and on the packages of tobacco products themselves. Consequently, nearly all people who smoke are aware of its implicit harms, and the effect it has on others around them. They have made that calculation, and nevertheless wish to continue smoking. Packaging has never been considered an act of advertisement for a product, which is why plain packaging wasn’t brought in following the ban on tobacco advertising. The legislative hammer has now left society numb, unable to feel the next blow, no matter how hard it hits. This is why plain packaging will be ineffective, as graphic warnings have been ineffective. Plain packaging also has a number of deleterious side-effects, such as persuading smokers to take up cheaper versions of their products, assisting the tobacco black markets and hurting smaller retailers. There have been calls for plain packaging and graphic warnings to appear on alcohol and sugary products, following proposals by the government of Thailand. When all you have is a legislative hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. Ultimately, smoking is a choice. Unequivocally, the facts about smoking are known. We should help our friends who want to quit, but quit our incessant meddling in the lives of strangers.