Boxed in

Now Australia’s Federal government is demanding cigarettes are sold in ‘plain packaging’

    What’s next?  Alcohol sold only in black plastic tubs?  Burgers that can only be bought from opaque, windowless outlets: dingy ‘adult shops’ for fast food?

    Ridiculous?  Not according to the tobacco industry.  That, they say, is the way that Australia is going.

    Already cigarettes are sold from under the counter in most Australian states already packets are plastered with gruesome imagery of the health problems smoking brings.

    Now Australia’s Federal government is demanding cigarettes are sold in ‘plain packaging’. Regardless of brand, those elements of the box not covered by off-putting pictures will have to be olive green - research suggests that’s the colour least appealing to consumers.

    The name of the brand, and product name, will have to be in a uniform font, in tiny writing at the base of the box.

    For tobacco companies, this is a big deal.  Worldwide, they already operate an ostracised industry.

    In many countries advertising is banned and huge taxes are applied to their product, consumption of which is outlawed in most public settings.  Now, in Australia, the very last plank of marketing normality is being taken away.

    The industry isn’t taking this lying down.  They are threatening legal action, claiming their commercial rights are being infringed.   ‘We’re a legal industry’, they say, ‘we have legal rights to brands and imagery we’ve invested hundreds of millions in developing’.

    Marketing, they claim, doesn’t encourage people to smoke, it merely shifts consumers between brands: that’s healthy competition, the hallmark of a market economy.

    And then the tobacco companies go on the counter attack.  Take away ‘branding’, they say, and we have nothing left to compete on but price – they’ll be a race to the bottom cheaper cigarettes will encourage more people to smoke.

    Then, conversely: ‘we’ll take this through the courts the government will have to spend big bucks fighting it: big bucks of taxpayers money that are better spent on schools and hospitals.’

    Their marketing dollars, meanwhile, are being shifted elsewhere.  A campaign has been launched, ostensibly on behalf of the Alliance of Australian Retailers, highlighting how small shop-keepers will suffer. I say ‘ostensibly’ because although the Alliance purports to represent the interests of small corner-shops and petrol stations, it is funded by big tobacco firms.

    Marketing dollars they can’t spend advertising their product are instead being spent advertising the injustices to their industry.

    Of course, for all their protestations, the cigarette companies are concerned not only that their share of the market will diminish with plain packaging, but that their market will decline as a whole.

    I spoke to some of the small retailers featured in the Alliance’s YouTube ad and they told me that they’d noticed a significant drop in cigarette sales overall since packets have been kept out of view of consumers. They fear a further drop if plain packaging legislation is passed.

    Exactly what the government, and health campaigners want.

    But if the tobacco industry’s commercial argument is bunkum, its argument of principle surely stands: where does this end? Either cigarettes are a legal product, or they are not.

    Either ban them, or don’t.

    In many ways, Australia is a strangely paternal place. The government interferes in areas unregulated in many other parts of the world.

    Take cycling. It is illegal here to ride without a helmet.  Very sensible perhaps except that in this case too, regulation reduces consumption.  Casual cycling falls with requirements to ride protected. There’s a strong argument that reduced numbers of riders on the road decreases cyclists’ safety overall – car drivers not used to bikes crash with them more frequently.

    Once introduced, paternal legislation is very hard to repeal.  It also spreads - and that’s what really frightens the tobacco industry. They know Australia is a world leader in the anti-smoking movement.  With a small population, a very small proportion of whom smoke, Australia is a market the tobacco industry could afford to lose.

    But what if this legislation spreads to other, vastly larger lands?

    Australia’s legislation is a test case. That’s why tobacco companies are so keen to stub it out.


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