When the Rudd government’s National Preventative Health Taskforce released a position paper on anti-tobacco measures, they titled it “Making Smoking History”.
If that was the goal you’d think the government could just ban cigarettes – a clear, bold, unequivocal stance on what it has condemned as a very dangerous and addictive product.
But the title does help us understand the reasoning behind plain packaging of tobacco, a policy which federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon announced a few weeks ago. It’s punitive.
The nanny state is no longer trying to inform us of the best choices and the risks of unhealthy behaviour. Now it’s just resorted to bullying – haranguing and punishing people who still make those unapproved choices contrary to nanny’s wisdom and despite nanny’s best efforts.
Where will this end? Surely, after decades of anti-smoking education, the presumption eventually has to fall back onto individual responsibility.
You can hate tobacco companies. You can hate what cigarettes do. But the government is planning to make Australia the first country in the world to impose plain packaging on cigarettes. It seems reasonable to ask whether it will work.
Here’s what we know: smokers are influenced by packaging, to a degree. Lighter colours seem to imply less risk. One leaked Phillip Morris document admitted as much. “Smooth” and “silver” also suggest safer cigarettes.
Hence the government’s proposed new packet design – an unappealing olive green, with unadorned text for the label. But the literature suggests package marketing only influences the choices of existing smokers.
The government’s goal for packaging is to stop people becoming smokers in the first place. Roxon argues “catchy colours” are designed to “suck in young people”. Her aim is to “make sure fewer people start on this dangerous habit”. And there’s no clear evidence packet design inspires non-smokers to start smoking.
The most that reviews of the scholarly evidence can find are surveys in which teenagers are asked to imagine whether their friends could be duped by shiny packages. You may not be surprised to learn teenagers assume their friends are idiots.
This lack of evidence isn’t surprising. People start smoking because they want to try the sensation of smoking, not try the sensation of holding a well-designed package. And what about existing smokers? Let’s just say if graphic photos of bleeding lungs haven’t inspired you to kick the habit, an olive box probably won’t either.
The tobacco companies are upset about plain packaging because it will make it harder to compete for the existing pool of customers. They focus on packaging design because there’s nothing left for them to do.
It’s not as if cigarette marketing isn’t highly regulated already. Smokers won’t even be able to see the olive-ness of the packets until after purchase. New Victorian laws mean cigarettes are closeted out of view behind the counter. Now retailers can only display a sign, provided by the state government, with the words “We Sell Tobacco Here” in black on a white background.
Existing laws will undermine the effectiveness of future anti-smoking policies the government might implement.
After all, it’s one thing to show that people in an experimental psychology lab think lighter colours mean lighter cigarettes. But it’s quite another to imagine that – after decades of anti-smoking advertising, warning labels and social disapproval – the colour of the packet will make a lick of difference to the decision to smoke.
The traditional justification for nanny state-style regulation is that people don’t understand the consequences of their choices.
Should people be allowed to manage their own risks: to conduct themselves in their own way, to abuse or protect their bodies as they see fit?
The answer to that question ultimately depends on your personal values. But the first health warning on cigarette packets was imposed 38 years ago.
Anyway, we’re a long way past the days of health bureaucrats gently nudging us to make better decisions, and moderate sin taxes to recoup the costs to taxpayers.
Budget after budget of tobacco excise increases mean tobacco taxes now far outweigh the burden of smokers on the publicly funded health system.
The government estimates smoking-related illness costs about $300 million a year. But it collects $5.8 billion each year in tobacco excise duty.
If the very existence of brands causes harm, as the government’s plain packaging strategy suggests, then plain packaging for alcohol will no doubt be next. Eighty per cent of Australians believe the nation has a drinking problem.
Brewers won’t be able to get away with fluorescent and sparkling alcopops forever. They’re obviously targeted at younger consumers. Nobody drinks Bacardi Breezers “responsibly”.
Prominent text warning labels will come first. Then graphics.
Seems unlikely? Well, 10 years ago the idea that the government would eliminate logos from cigarette packs would have seemed pretty unlikely too.
In a nanny state, what first sounds absurd can quickly become the law of the land.