Sunday, January 1, 2012

Plain packages

Anti-smoker zealots would have us believe that all tobacco control initiatives are about public health; if smokers can be coerced into quitting their filthy habit, then the cancer “epidemic” and dozens of other “tobacco related” diseases would simply disappear. But honesty and integrity are not characteristics I normally associate with the anti-smoker crowd.

The latest gambit in the campaign to force smokers to quit comes from the land down under.

Australia has launched legislation that will require tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging beginning in December 2012. Under the plain packaging legislation, all tobacco products will have to be sold in ugly olive-green packages, plastered with graphic health warnings, with the product name in standardized lettering.

It is believed that plain packaging will make cigarettes less attractive to young people, improve the effectiveness of health warnings and diminish the perception that some brands are ‘safer’ than others. According to the zealots, making the cigarette package as nondescript and unappealing as possible will reduce smoking uptake amongst children and young people. Uh-huh.

Of course, there’s no way the effectiveness of this, or any other single tobacco control initiative, can be evaluated. Have fewer kids taken up the smoking habit because cigarettes are hidden from view or because laws prohibiting sales of tobacco to minors, on the books in Canada for over a hundred years, are finally being enforced?

Do cigarette packages, adorned as they are with repulsive graphic health warnings, really encourage children and young people to start smoking just because a small portion of the package comes in a pretty shade of blue or a company logo?

British American Tobacco (BAT) has launched a court challenge to Australia’s plain packaging legislation. This angers the anti-smoker zealots who prefer the industry to roll over and play dead.

Australia’s Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, said in a statement: "Let there be no mistake, big tobacco is fighting against the government for one very simple reason - because it knows, as we do, that plain packaging will work.”

The simple truth is that neither she, nor her government, can possibly know any such thing.

Australia is the first jurisdiction in the world to contemplate such legislation, and that legislation is not scheduled to become effective for another year. So there is no precedent on which to base her claim that the government knows plain packaging will work.

But, despite the lack of evidence demonstrating any merit in such legislation, anti-smoker zealots are already pushing for similar laws in other jurisdictions, including Great Britain and Canada.

In Canada, cigarette advertising is conspicuous by its absence, cigarette displays are prohibited at point of sale and the sale of any tobacco products to minors is illegal. The elimination of company trademarks, logos or colour schemes is unlikely to make cigarettes any less appealing to children (or young people). Even adults don’t get to see the pack until after they’ve paid for them.

Of course, the kids might develop a nicotine “addiction” from the flavoured nicotine gum or lozenges which are sold over the counter with no age restrictions. But, that’s for another post.

And, it’s hard to see how plain packaging would make the graphic warnings on cigarette packs any more effective. They’re already as ghoulish and grotesque as a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or some other slasher flick.

And, the packs will still require a modifier indicating whether the contents are regular, light, extra light or menthol. Whether the smokes are marked Peter Jackson Lights, Peter Jackson Blue or Peter Jackson Number 2 will make little difference. The distinction between regular and light cigarettes will always be there because smokers want, and are entitled, to know what they’re buying. So, there is little to be accomplished on that front.

Plain packaging? Bullshit and bafflegab at its finest.