Removal of Branding Imagery from Cigarette Packets
The Australian government is about to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes. This is a bold move and not without risks. The tobacco companies will do all in their collective power to prevent this from occurring. Already they have launched a media campaign and are initiating legal action. It is not a foregone conclusion that the Australian government will get their way and 'Big Tobacco' will throw a great deal of money and resources into the campaign. The pro-smoking lobby exert great power and can enjoy a certain degree of political favour. The tobacco business is indeed 'Big Business' and much is at stake.
The World Watches and Waits
Of course the rest of the world will be watching developments with great interest. If the Australians are successful then other Western governments are likely to follow. The New Zealand government has already agreed, in principle, to the introduction of plain cigarette packaging. The worry, of course, is if the tobacco companies prevail then the Australian government could be left with legal and compensation costs estimated to range in the billions of dollars; this cost will ultimately be borne by the tax paying population.
Reduction in Smoking?
The argument for plain packaging centres on the belief that packets devoid of branding will be less attractive to potential customers. I suspect that plain packets will have no practical impact on those hardened smokers addicted to nicotine. However, their loyalty to a particular brand may be severely tested. Indeed, loss of packet branding may lead to price war amongst tobacco companies. Without distinctive packet branding, cigarette choice may come down to price. If this happens then cigarettes will become cheaper. One of the great disincentives for smokers is the high price of tobacco. Most Western countries have introduced successive and punitive tax hikes to make the product less attractive to the paying public. Tobacco 'price wars' could undermine these incentives and provide smokers with an excuse not to give up the habit. It is also anticipated that plain cigarette packaging will make smoking less attractive to young, first time smokers. The reasons young smokers take up the habit in the first place is due to a number, and often, interacting factors. It is my fervent hope that plain packaging will prove a real barrier for the young to take up smoking, although I'm not totally convinced it will have practical benefits. If plain cigarette packaging becomes a reality then it will be interesting to see if it actually results in a measurable lowering in smoking incidence, especially amongst the young.
Governments, Smoking and Money
Governments have always been ambivalent when it comes to tobacco. On the one hand smoking is undoubtedly the most single, important and preventable factor in a nation's ill health; there are large health costs attributed to smoking. Although, this is counteracted, to a certain degree, by the fact that one in two smokers will die prematurely from their habit. From a cynical, as well as an economic viewpoint, this saves money on retirement pensions. On the other hand, it cannot be disputed that governments obtain vast revenues from tobacco taxation.
A Good Use of Resources?
In the final analysis, I suspect that a nation's resources would be better placed in proven and well founded anti-smoking programs geared towards preventing people, and especially young people, from taking up the habit in the first place. I don't think plain cigarette packing will have this effect. Although on this occasion I am more than happy to be contradicted.