Plain stupid: Seeing past the Nanny State’s smoke

14 Aug 2015


Despite being a smoker, I support the gruesome health warnings that are featured prominently on cigarette packets. I also do not mind paying an extra bit of VAT on my B&H Gold and Dunhill Reds and, for the most part, I do not mind being barred from smoking inside certain buildings/establishments. However, the government’s new plain packaging proposals make me feel patronized and persecuted. This policy is in fact ineffective, unnecessary and naïve. Credit needs to be given to Jeremy Browne, UKIP, the 104 Tory rebels, and the three Labour MPs who unsuccessfully took a stand to oppose the proposal in Parliament earlier this year.


To see the potentially troublesome effects of this policy, one merely needs to observe the case study of Australia, a nation which approved plain packaging in 2012. Homogenous packaging of cigarettes understandably creates a bustling tobacco black market. 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”. This, in turn, saps government tax revenue, and makes it much easier for underage people to acquire cigarettes (the very people this policy is supposed to discourage from smoking). Indeed, according to Breitbart, in Australia between 2010 and 2013 there was a 36% rise in the smoking rate within this demographic.


As well as losses to tax revenues (estimated at between £219 million and £348 million annually) tobacco companies are also provoked into waging long, costly lawsuits against the government (Phillip Morris in Australia for example). It is estimated that trademark/intellectual property cases will cost the UK government anywhere between £5 billion and £11 billion. Moreover, in Australia, loose tobacco and value cigarette sales have risen, meaning that illicit smoking in general has increased. Thus, in reality, tobacco consumption hasn’t dipped (for more info see this 2013 KPMG Study).


On top of this, without packaging to differentiate each brand, prices will fall and premium cigarettes will all but disappear, fostering a market filled with cheap, poor-quality products. In the Convenience retail sector, the resulting UK job losses are estimated to be up to 3,500 according to a 2013 study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research.


If you want to challenge the tobacco companies and stand up for public health, don’t waste your time by supporting plain cigarette packaging. Attacking tobacco in the name of public health is in today’s age akin to flogging a dead horse (at least in the UK). Ubiquitous sugary products should be our main target , and only the Green party seem committed to proportional VAT action on this issue. By keeping the pressure on the much beleaguered tobacco industry, you give politicians a scapegoat to avoid much more sinister vices in our society. Indeed, smoking isn’t even an economic burden on the NHS anymore (unlike sugar and alcohol), as according to this FULLFACT report.


Essentially, it’s time to drop the war on tobacco control and address bigger, more pertinent targets. We should listen to The Lancet and Eurocare and prioritize based on their recommendations. Otherwise, we risk sacrificing public and political effort on counter-productive, costly policies.


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