Plain Tobacco Packaging Targets the Basic Rights of Businesses

With public hearings underway in Quebec on Bill 44 — which aims to bolster tobacco control in this province — various groups are making their displeasure known. There are, among others, bar owners who find the law too severe, while others on the contrary want the government to impose even more restrictive measures

The bill addresses several aspects of tobacco consumption, but does not touch on the question of plain packaging, at least so far. However, Quebec's Public Health Minister recently stated that she would study the possibility of forcing tobacco companies to use "plain and standardized packaging" for the sale of tobacco products. Such a plain packaging law was adopted in Australia in 2013.

Plain packaging targets the basic rights of businesses and their shareholders, including their intellectual property. Indeed, brands and advertising are fundamental aspects of a competitive market. This type of regulation aims to standardize the shape or colour of cigarette packages and the warnings that appear on them, and therefore deprives brand owners of their intellectual property — and it does so without compensation.

Is this measure at least effective? In Australia, according to some, plain packaging seems to have contributed to a 12 per cent reduction in tobacco consumption from December 2013 to December 2014.

But other data suggest the opposite. Looking at imported cigarettes, we see that over the first 12 months following the implementation of the plain packaging policy, volumes actually grew. Which suggests that tobacco consumption does not seem to have dropped following the introduction of plain packaging, but rather increased.

The real debate lies elsewhere

For me, the real debate lies elsewhere. I think that both groups are wrong, or rather, that they're missing the point in this fairly technical war of numbers, about which I have no strong opinion one way or another. I personally have no idea if tobacco consumption in Australia is falling by three per cent or 12 per cent; rising by 0.5 per cent; or standing still.

Here, in my opinion, is the important question that's not being addressed: Are we willing to accept that adults, with eyes wide open, can make their own decisions, including choices that are bad for their health? Humans, over the course of a lifetime, make a whole range of choices, and adopt behaviours that are more or less risky — including bungee jumping or skydiving, or having unprotected sex, or eating too much fat or too much sugar — and they are responsible for those choices, for better or for worse.

Maybe in 1950 or 1960, there were still some people who didn't know that tobacco was harmful for their health. But in 2015, absolutely no one can claim not to know this.

One thing that cheers me is to see a portion of the political class also opposing, on the basis of individual liberty, the imposition of a whole host of new regulations on tobacco consumption, as the excellent journalist Denis Lessard reported a few months ago.

These Members of Quebec's National Assembly are right, because this is what the real debate is all about. Beyond the war of statistics, the principles of liberty and personal responsibility must be brought back to the heart of discussions about tobacco consumption, or consumption of any other product deemed "harmful" to one's health.

Let's recall that Mao made it mandatory for the employees of state-owned corporations to exercise every day. We can presume that this was good for their health. But is this really the kind of society we want to live in? You don't need to be a radical libertarian to start to ask some serious questions regarding the tendency of certain activist groups, and of the politicians who follow their lead, to want to regiment all aspects of people's lives under the pretext of protecting their health.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.

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