A recent article in the Washington Post opened with this thought about curbing smoking: "The best way to get people to stop buying cigarettes might be to sell them in indistinguishable boxes."
Is so-called "plain packaging" really such a good idea?
From a purely consequentialist standpoint, plain packaging might reduce smoking rates, though even that's debatable.
The Post pointed to two studies and a report that found that cigarettes in plain, uniform packaging are less appealing than an array of diverse, branded packs — especially to nonsmokers and young people.
The newspaper also cited Australia as a success story, noting that calls to a smoking cessation helpline have jumped 80 percent since plain packaging was mandated Down Under in December 2012.
But there are a few major issues with the Australian case.
First, while calls to the helpline may have spiked, there's no hard evidence that plain packaging has actually gotten fewer people to smoke, as Australia's smoking rate had been steadily declining for years before the ban on branded packs.
Indeed, Australian tobacco sales actually increased by 0.3 percent in 2013, the first full year of plain packaging.
Furthermore, the "plain" packaging in Australia isn't exactly "plain" — it's graphic.
''In the end … one of the main reasons [I quit] was seeing those pictures,'' Australian Emily Howard told the Sydney Morning Herald last year, explaining why she dropped an 11-year smoking habit. ''They were a constant reminder.''
In Australia, smokers aren't just robbed of their favorite brand's logos — they're assaulted by gruesome images each time they make a tobacco purchase.
Unless, of course, they make an illegal purchase.
A tobacco-industry commissioned report from auditing firm KPMG found that black market cigarette sales spiked in Australia in 2013, driven by a 151 percent rise in the illegal sale of branded cigarette packs.
The tobacco industry has also claimed that smokers who do make legal purchases are now motivated, more than ever before, to simply seek out the most tobacco for their buck, as the lack of branded packs erodes brand loyalty and increasing taxes push prices as high as AU$25 per pack.
“Since the last 12.5 per cent excise [tax] increase on 1 December 2013, the low price segment [of the cigarette market] has grown almost 5 percent," British American Tobacco Australia spokesperson Scott McIntyre said in June, also pointing to 2013's increase in the Australian smoking rate. "That’s more smokers, smoking cheaper cigarettes in the last six months.”
And none of this evidence speaks to a more disturbing possibility: If governments can completely strip tobacco companies of their ability to label their products, could it happen in other industries?
And back in Australia, there's a push to put "plain packaging" on slot machines — no more dollar signs and gold doubloons to lure in gamblers.
The tobacco industry of course staunchly opposes blank packaging requirements. One industry source told TheBlaze they constitute a serious infringement on the rights of businesses, hamstringing their ability to compete on anything but price.
"It destroys our intellectual property, steals our branding from us, provides no compensation for that theft and has the cherry on top that it doesn't work. Many people just move to illicit [cigarettes]," said the source, a public relations manager with a major tobacco firm. "[There is] always going to be a percentage of adults who are unwilling ... to quit. If it's easier and cheaper to buy from the street than the store, of course they will."
There's also the notion that consumers may wish to indulge in a vice without being assaulted by graphic warnings.
In the U.S., courts have ruled that mandated graphic warnings on tobacco packaging are a violation of the First Amendment's free speech protections, though other countries including France and Ireland are pushing plain packaging forward.
Smoking is, of course, a serious public health concern, but as the tobacco industry has warned, plain packaging's impact on smoking rates is debatable and the loss of liberty — for businesses and consumers — is a serious concern.
If smoking is the disease, plain packaging is only one possible cure. Whether that cure is worth the cost remains to be seen.
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