Anti-smoking campaigners 'hooked on legislation'
by Christopher Snowdon
As a UK government consultation on plain packaging for cigarettes ends, this think-tank fellow wonders why anti-smoking campaigners are addicted to new legislation even when bereft of empirical evidence to support their claims
Is the anti-smoking movement addicted to legislation? If so, is it possible to wean these people off silly laws and return them into the community? I ask the question because every year the crusaders fire up their formidable PR machine and every year their policies become more surreal. Cigarette prices sky high? Make a pack cost £100. Graphic health warnings did not work? Put the cigarettes behind shutters. Shutters fail to do the trick? Make all cigarette packs brown. Perhaps the whole enterprise is a Situationist prank designed to see if there is any policy too preposterous to be enshrined in law under the pretext of protecting kiddies.
It is easy to see why anti-smoking policies sail through parliament so regularly. They allow politicians to make a gesture about an unhealthy habit at little or no cost to themselves. The latest wheeze is plain packaging, a policy that has never been tried anywhere in the world, but which the crusaders nevertheless claim to have a mountain of evidence which proves it will work. The evidence they cite shows nothing of the sort. They merely ask people whether they think a conventional cigarette pack looks better than a mocked up plain pack, which is coloured 'faecal brown' and sports a large photo of a gangrenous foot. It is no great surprise that those surveyed usually prefer the normal pack, but it tells us nothing about whether fewer people would smoke as a result. If you give me a wine label and a felt tip, I will make it look less appealing, but I would never be so disingenuous as to claim that I can reduce underage drinking using the same tools.
It is, however, telling that when the participants in these experiments are asked the direct question of whether they think plain packaging will lower the smoking rate, the majority say no. They understand, as the campaigners apparently do not, that people do not start smoking because they are attracted by a logo. People buy cigarettes for what is in the pack, not what is on the pack. I realise that what I am about to say is almost heretical in this day and age, but here goes: some people enjoy smoking.
Bereft of empirical evidence to support plain packaging, the anti-smokers instead point out that the tobacco industry opposes it. This, they say, shows that Big Tobacco knows that plain packaging will make smoking history. Nice try, but that bird does not fly either. Plain packaging is likely to reduce the appeal of premium brands and some smokers will 'downgrade' to cheaper brands. This could certainly make the cigarette business less profitable, but only because margins are tighter on cheaper cigarettes, not because fewer people will smoke.
Even Simon Chapman, the veteran anti-smoking activist who led the plain packs campaign in Australia, admits that the prospect of the market moving away from more expensive brands "explains a lot about why [cigarette companies] fear plain packaging, because they will struggle to convince smokers that it's sensible to pay more for products that actually only look better because of their box". Few of us will feel much sympathy for the cigarette companies if their profits decline, but annoying the industry is not a valid public health objective in itself and encouraging people to buy cheaper cigarettes is a perverse anti-smoking strategy.
As a last resort, the crusaders will say that we have nothing to lose by abolishing branding on cigarette packs so why not just give it a go? Leaving aside the fact that plain packaging will make life a lot easier for those who counterfeit cigarettes, the answer to that question depends on what we see as the state's proper role in a liberal democracy. Plain packaging is an affront to the free market and a gross infringement of intellectual property rights, which is why it is opposed by the United States chamber of commerce, the International Trademark Association, the European Communities Trade Mark Association, the Anti-Counterfeiting Group, and many other trade organisations.
While is clearly appropriate for cigarettes to bear a prominent health warning, for the government to confiscate the entirety of a product's packaging while effectively abolishing an industry's trademarks is beyond the pale. Companies must have the right to differentiate their products from their competitors. Business associations are rightly concerned about what will happen if this Pandora's Box is opened. In Australia, campaigners are already calling for plain packaging to be rolled out to certain foods and the British government has recently been consulting on whether the policy should be extended to alcohol. We do not have to go down this road. Laws should not be enacted on the whim of a dogmatic minority who find the sight of a packet of cigarettes or a can of beer intolerable.
By their own admission, plain packaging will do nothing to help smokers quit – which can be the only justification for the existence of a state-funded anti-smoking movement. Instead, the campaigners seem to be motivated by a profound contempt of smokers and a petty-minded desire to score points against the tobacco industry. Hooked on legislation as they are, they have scraped the very bottom of the policy barrel. They will doubtless return next year and every year with the irksome regularity of seasonal influenza, but the government should not encourage them to scrape any further.
Christopher Snowdon is a fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London
Silly headline, even if the article makes some good points. The anti-smokers aren't the addicted ones. They just don't like having to breathe other people's filth and pay heavily to fund the unnecessary treatment of weak-willed losers.
An Englishman - England
@ An Englishman - England
They don't have to breathe in other people's filth. When smoking was legal there was no requirement for pub landlords to allow smoking. If non-smokers felt so strongly about this problem there would have been pubs across the country offering smoke free environments long before the ban.
As to your point about paying for the treatment of "weak willed losers". This is exactly why the NHS is such an immoral institution. It is hard to think of anything more fundamental to human freedom than balancing short term pleasure with long term risk. That someone else's judgement conflicts with your own does not make them losers. The point I think you are getting at is that where my appetite towards risk is greater than yours, it is unfair that you end up picking up the pieces. This is just another way of acknowledging that I should pay for my medical insurance based on the insurer's assessment of my risk profile, and you should pay for your own. But I suspect you are not saying that and that you are as addicted to socialised health care as the BMA is addicted to legislation.
Disgusting, filthy, stinking - what they emit is from their mouths is sickening - like licking and ashtray. I've done it. And the stench of their clothes. I've done it - I've been up to them and sniffed them at close range. And they make me stink as well. And that's just the babies.
Junican - another Englishman - England - England
There's a very simple way to refute the antis' 'logic': Just ask them in what type of packaging dope, hash, cocaine, ecstasy and so on come.
The Remittance Man - Klainkudoeskop, South Africa
"By their own admission, plain packaging will do nothing to help smokers quit – which can be the only justification for the existence of a state-funded anti-smoking movement."
What about preventing young people from taking it up?
Why are you quite so vociferous, have you a vested interest or do you just like to appear contrarian like some low rent Jeremy Clarkson?
Niall Scott - Rochdale
No, it's not a silly headline, AE. There's a real debate to be had about the role of legislation in public health policy in respect of addiction. And another about whether austerity and a philosophical predilection for 'small government' tempt politicians into short-termism and grandstanding.
'Plain packaging' isn't really designed to help people quit but to discourage them from starting. And since this group are overwhelmingly young, there are better low cost options. We could, for example, consider expelling students who smoke from colleges and universities. After all, a degree isn't a human right, it's a privilege.
More generally, we could encourage employers to follow the example of that firm in the Lake District which makes smoking a breach of its employment contracts. Government could use its considerable purchasing power here. We could have a debate about whether social housing tenants should be smoke-free. So why don't we? Because politcians don't know where the votes are, and that - reasonably enough - scares them.
Mike Killingworth - London, England
Impressive bit of satire, Mike.
Sadly, there are people out there who would actually support the draconian measures you propose. Some Brits genuinely believe that our government is too small and restrained, despite it being as large and intrusive as it's ever been in peacetime.
If somebody smokes, that's their problem - or as blingmun nicely puts it, their chosen balance of short term pleasure against long term risk. Personally, I've never seen the attraction of tobacco, though I do enjoy alcohol and various other frowned-upon psychoactive substances.
Mr Snowdon explained in The Wages of Sin Taxes that smokers - and heavy drinkers, and the obese - cost the NHS less over their lifetimes than healthy people - they die young, and more than pay their way through sin taxes. Even if the economics change, and these people do become a net burden, that would be a reason to de-socialise healthcare costs, not an excuse for the state to decide what we do with our own bodies.
If the non-smoking, tofu-eating teetotallers want to form their own exclusive health insurance club, that's fine by me. The rest of us should be free to make our own choices, and live with the consequences.
SuboptimalPlanet - Oxford, UK