Plain packaging is plain madness

By Stephen Hoffman

Plain packaging is a policy that would force shopkeepers across the UK to hide cigarettes in metal boxes and with all the packaging plain. No cigarettes would be branded and there would be no trademarks. In short all cigarettes would look drearily the same.

As part of this Orwellian policy, it would be the Government not the market which would decide the size and colour of packaging, and the only images allowed would be graphic pictures and captions telling you how bad smoking is. This all takes power away from consumers, who will only be able to distinguish between tobacco products by brand name, which will be highlighted in small standardised font.

The aim is to reduce smoking and make it harder to smoke. Like a lot of health policy ideas, the assumption seems to be that your body and your choices are the property of the state. In essence, you are not an individual but a cog in the wheel of a vast interfering and controlling state, which treats individualism as a swearword.

It’s a simple idea but a terrible one; full of unintended consequences – not least the destruction of individual freedom by the nanny state being at its intervening worst. It’s already bad enough that we treat smokers as social lepers by forcing them to smoke outside pubs and stigmatising smokers, but plain packaging takes it to a whole new level. You would have thought the Conservatives under David Cameron who speak so much about protecting freedom and about the defending the free market would be against plain packaging. Unfortunately, all the current signs show you would be wrong.

The only group of people it appears would benefit from plain packaging is illegal tobacco smugglers. This reminds us of the law of unintended consequences when it comes to government intervention. Currently one in nine cigarettes is sold illegally, so clearly it’s not a small problem. The illegal market makes smoking more dangerous, as there is the distinct possibility that smugglers mix tobacco with dangerous products.

It also encourages young people to smoke through the forbidden fruit effect and decreases tax revenues for the Government. In short it’s a bad thing. Through plain packaging, illegal smugglers will be provided with an opportunity to increase the counterfeit market of cigarettes. If we just allowed the market decided when it comes to cigarette packets, we could decrease the size of the illegal market.

Plain packaging also harms free markets and free choice. Plain packaging will reduce the information consumers have at their disposal and decrease the opportunities for consumers to differentiate between cigarette brands. Moreover plain packaging undermines commercial expression and harms the free markets. How, pray, can the UK speak up for free trade if they pursue such a protectionist policy?

Plain packaging would also do untold harm to corner shops across the UK that represent the lifeblood of the economy and ensure the UK remains a nation of shopkeepers. Whilst large supermarkets, due to economies of scale, will be able to deal with the operating costs of paying for large metal cases to contain all the non-branded cigarettes and training their staff on the new rules surrounded cigarettes, it’s a cost small corner shops could ill afford. At a time when small businesses across the UK are drowning under oceans of red tape and taxes, we cannot afford to add to that.

These are just a few reasons why plain packaging is a bad idea but there are many more. It’s time the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Conservative Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, stood up for the values of individual freedom and free markets and consign the policy of plain packaging to the dustbin.

If they do not, they will be contributing to an Orwellian nightmare. If you want to learn more about how crazy the idea of plain packaging is, please read anti-plain packaging campaigner Christopher Snowdon’s excellent paper for The Adam Smith Institute.

Stephen Hoffman is a former parliamentary liaison intern for The Freedom Association and is presently campaigns officer for the UK Zionist Federation. He writes here in a personal capacity and tweets at