Plain Packaging: Where There’s Smoke, There’s Furphies

OK, the disclaimer first: I’m a smoker; I’ve averaged a packet of cigarettes per day since I was 18. I don’t deny the health risks and implications, and I fervently hope my children never smoke. But as an anti-smoking initiative, plain packaging is a measure doomed to fail.

The cheers have gone up across the country this week, among health campaigners and anti-smokers alike, in the wake of the High Court finding against the tobacco companies’ claim that legislation to force cigarettes to be sold in plain wrappings — as opposed to branded packets — stripped them of their intellectual property without monetary compensation.

And I use the term “anti-smokers,” rather than “non-smokers,” because there’s a big, big difference: a non-smoker is a fairly self-explanatory creature, but an anti-smoker is often someone who takes all leave of their senses whenever the subject of tobacco crosses their line of sight, their auditory range, or their thought processes.

A prime example of just this phenomenon became evident this morning — in newspaper articles and talkback radio segments across Australia — as anti-smoker after anti-smoker sought to follow up “victory” in the High Court with ambit demands that the “logical next step” be taken — and for smoking to be banned in Australia altogether.

And those demands neatly highlight just how far, in the wrong direction, the whole public discussion — including the health debate — has travelled.

I think it’s reasonable to say that a large number — nay, a solid majority — of smokers genuinely regret ever having taken up the habit. I certainly do, and those who know me will have heard me say many times that the stupidest thing I ever did, aged 18 in 1990 — supposedly having cleared the great peer-pressured risk period of my secondary schooling years — was to buy a packet of cigarettes.

Yet by the same token, the adage “once a smoker, always a smoker” is very true: nicotine is the most addictive substance known to man, and it doesn’t take very many years for anyone who is or has been a regular smoker to embark on the first of what is often dozens of attempts to quit — only to relapse, for one reason or the other, after varying periods of time.

And most smokers enjoy smoking — if not all of the time, at least some of the time, even if such admissions appear to sit in awkward juxtaposition against any desire to quit or regret at ever having started — and again, I fit this category too.

So early in this piece — even if I write from the unsexy side of the argument as a smoker — I would like to think there is still a reasonable degree of balance on display here.

But on the headline question, it is precisely my views as a smoker that are most relevant: would cigarettes sold in a drab olive-green packet, plastered with pictures of diseased organs and health warnings, with a brand printed in the same small font as all other cigarette brands, motivate me to stop smoking?

No. Not at all. Not for a moment. And I will tell you why this over-hyped measure is likely to be utterly useless in reducing overall smoking rates in Australia as well.

The simplistic answer is that there is nothing at all new in the changes to cigarette packaging being forced on the tobacco industry; for starters, there have been Government Health Warnings on cigarette packets for decades. We grow immune to seeing them, and don’t bother reading them. Not all of us are stupid — we know the potential dangers and we continue to smoke. After a while, there’s no further impetus to continue to read all about it.

It’s the same with the pictures of diseased organs; they, too, have graced the packets cigarettes are sold in for many years. It is true that when these were initially introduced, an instant –albeit small — reduction in the overall smoking rate occurred. But any shock value such images carried very quickly wore off, and most smokers have become just as desensitised to them as they have to the printed warnings that accompany them.

And as for reducing all portions of a cigarette packet not devoted to health warnings and/or interesting pictures to a plain green colour, I can’t think of a more ridiculous or less propitious measure being introduced that would cause anyone to stop smoking.

The vast, overwhelming majority of smokers are brand loyal to a degree most marketers can only dream of; even after 20 years of the near-universal absence of any form of tobacco advertising in Australia, cigarette brands routinely fill six or seven of the 10 top-selling brands of product sold at retail level in Australia.

Those brands will still be identifiable to smokers and thus remain available for ease of purchase, courtesy of a template provision in the plain packaging legislation for the brand and variety of cigarettes to continue to be displayed on the packet itself.

Objectively, and in light of the points I have made so far, what is the counter-argument? There isn’t one. The whole exercise, to my mind, is mostly about the anti-smoking lobby being seen to be doing something as opposed to actually doing something that might achieve its aims.

And before anyone asks why, if plain packaging is so ineffective as a measure to cut smoking rates that the tobacco conglomerates went to the High Court to stop its introduction, I would make the simple observation that the case at law won by the federal government in the High Court this week was based on an argument over intellectual property, not on the merits or evils of smoking.

And anyone who thinks curious/rebellious teenagers won’t buy cigarettes just because they come in a green packet after 1 December is an imbecile. Pure and simple.

Part of the problem — and an element in the sheer farce of this latest do-gooder, nanny-state initiative — is that cigarettes and tobacco products generally remain legal in Australia, and consequently may be sold, purchased and used in this country on a lawful basis.

Already, as mentioned earlier, the anti-smoker lobby is already yelling for these products to be outlawed in the wake of a constitutional challenge to the validity of plain packaging laws being dismissed. But prohibition — as the US found so painfully, where alcohol was involved — simply creates underground black markets, and causes far more trouble in terms of law enforcement, public corruption and the restriction of supply than the original intention of the measure warrants.

Readers will note that I make no denial of the health risks associated with smoking; to do so is unnecessary.

But smokers have not been completely unforthcoming, either; and in doing so, often the concession of the smoker is rewarded simply with deception.

For example, in the early to mid 1990s — when so-called “sin taxes” were being applied to cigarettes — such taxes were “sold” to smokers as being the advance payment on the healthcare they may require later in life as a result of their addiction to cigarettes.

In the time I have been a smoker, I have seen the price of a packet of cigarettes rise from $2.20 to $17; most of this increase — even accounting for inflation — consists of the rising tax take on the basis the sin taxes were introduced.

Now, public health officials warn that smokers may be refused treatment in public facilities altogether, despite the tax dollars they have forked out on the basis they were paying for precisely that.

And that doesn’t take into account the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars many smokers pay in Medicare levies in a lifetime, either.

Could it be that smokers are simply a convenient source of consolidated revenue?

Smokers have been prepared — mostly with good humour — to leave their habit outside when it comes to offices, shopping centres, sporting venues, airports and aeroplanes, restaurants and (with some gripes) pubs and clubs. To name a few.

Now, they get chastised for smoking in the open air adjacent to such places.

And in a particularly odious trend I have noticed emerging of recent times, people who pass in the street — often in situations where prevailing conditions mean smoke has dissipated before it can even reach them — pretend to cough and retch and carry on at the mere sight of a cigarette. It is far more a reflection upon the noxious individuals who engage in this type of insidious and offensive behaviour than it will ever be upon someone smoking a cigarette.

The point is that a lot of what the anti-smoking lobby does now has reached the point at which it is actually counter-productive in cutting the rate of smoking in Australia.

And the easiest way to get a smoker to dig in and actively commit to continue smoking is to sermonise, assert that you know better, and to present as some morally superior being simply because you don’t smoke.

For all of these reasons — and there are others — selling plainly packaged tobacco products won’t make a jot of difference to the number of smokers in this country.

But I’d like to ask some really unfashionable questions as well:

Why is the FAT PERSON — often at far greater risk of health problems than a smoker, and potentially a greater burden on the health budget and for many years more — untaxed, unvilified, and unencumbered with the sort of shock-and-shame campaigns smokers are routinely hit with?

Why is the ALCOHOLIC — arguably an exponentially greater health risk than the smoker, as well as a source of domestic violence, shattered families, death to others on the roads and so forth — generally offered support and rehabilitation and endless medical treatment without the odium accorded the smoker, when the alcoholic is arguably the far greater public health risk?

Why is the GAMBLER — perhaps a mental health case rather than a cancer case, sure; but often a thief, a fraudster, a wrecker of families, and a poverty agent — not vilified, but supported by society?

And why is the ILLICIT DRUG USER the focus of so many rehabilitation programs, harm minimisation strategies, support services, the recipient of so much costly medical treatment and often the recipient of a smack on the wrist for breaking the law, without the vilification meted out to the smoker?

Readers, I ask these questions and raise all of the points in this article not to justify smoking — and certainly not to deny the links the habit has to ill-health — but merely to point out the disproportionate nature of the anti-smoking effort, the singling out of smokers whilst leaving other groups virtually undisturbed, and to show that at some point, people need to simply be allowed to make their own decisions and that there is a limit to the amount of nanny-state enforcement that will have any effect.

It is for all of these reasons that I can assure you that cigarettes sold in plain packaging — if, indeed, those regulations come into force in December as scheduled — will make no difference to the rate of smoking in Australia whatsoever.