In less than a week the UK Parliament will be voting on plain packaging for tobacco products. At the moment, the vote looks set to pass. ‘Lovely’, you might say – ‘good for public health, bad for Big Tobacco – how could anyone object?’

But it is far from clear-cut. Plain packaging was first proposed several years ago, but ministers have been reluctant to implement the scheme due to lack of evidence. For example, in 2009 Andy Burnham, then Secretary of State for Health, said this:

No studies have shown that introducing plain packaging of tobacco products would cut the number of young people smoking, or enable people who want to quit, to do so. Given the impact that plain packaging would have on intellectual property rights, we would need strong and convincing evidence showing the health benefits of this policy before it would be acceptable at an international level‘.

Since then, Australia has introduced plain packaging, with results that some people say are ‘mixed’. I say otherwise.
The evidence from Australia is clear: plain packaging doesn’t work against its stated aims. In many Australian states smoking rates have risen since the introduction of plain packaging.

Public health campaigners say that Big Tobacco companies object to plain packaging because they will lose business. That is partially true, but not entirely. Here are a few key arguments against plain packaging, some of them employed by tobacco companies:

• It increases smoking rates as people choose based on price rather than brand, can afford more of the cheaper cigarettes and so smoke more of them (as seen in Australia)
• It increases the illicit trade in cigarettes, as plain packaging is much easier to counterfeit than the branding that is elaborately designed to reduce counterfeiting (also seen in Australia)
• It will result in lower tax income for the exchequer as people avoid tax with counterfeit products, and pay less VAT on cheaper brands – costing public services dear, or else requiring tax increases elsewhere
• It breeches important intellectual property rights, essentially stealing branding from legal businesses – and opening the government up to costly lawsuits from the companies affected (it’s estimated that this will cost £11 billion)

So you can see, tobacco companies would lose out if plain packaging were introduced. But not because people would be smoking less; because people will buy cheaper brands (meaning lost revenue) and counterfeit products. They will also lose their branding, which doesn’t increase the number of smokers but is crucial as they do battle with competitors.

‘Awww, diddums’, I hear you say. You might think that tobacco companies losing business is a good thing. But this argument is not supposed to be about punishing legal businesses that some people do not like. This is supposed to be about public health. And on the public health measures, plain packaging fails.

You & I are the real losers
All of these arguments and evidence are, of course, important in explaining why plain packaging is a terrible idea. But my main concern is the implications for freedom of choice.

My campaign group, Conservatives for Liberty, believes that adults should be free to make their own choices about potentially harmful substances. It is for each individual to consider the risks associated with various products, and then decide if the pleasure they derive from them is worth the risk.

And in my view, caring about someone’s health does not make it OK to control their choices. This freedom is a fundamental plank of liberty, and it is being gradually eroded.

As a non-smoker – and a non-smoker who does not like others smoking around me – it would be easy to suspend this principle in the case of tobacco.

But when it comes to ‘public health’ and freedom of choice, the slippery slope is real. All the things that well-meaning public health campaigners judge to be unhealthy are in the firing line. Unfortunately for us, the principle of control has been established.

As you can see from our infographic, it’s only a very small step from tobacco to alcohol and sugar. Bans on advertising, high taxation and plain packaging first for tobacco, and then for alcohol and high sugar foods.

CFL-Prohib-w_quotesLTX

Don’t like the idea of fatty livers plastered all over your favourite bottle of wine? Or chocolate bars doubling in price through tax? Reckon Coco Pops are perfectly formed as they are, and shouldn’t have their composition changed by government decree? Think that actually, California might have the right idea on cannabis?

Then it’s time to stand firm on freedom of choice. Plain packaging will open the floodgates to these other controls, and I don’t think that’s good for any of us.

 

By Emily Barley
Emily Barley is chairman of Conservatives for Liberty, a libertarian, free market & socially liberal campaign group that believes human ingenuity is a wonderful thing and people are better off when government leaves them alone.