Plain, brown, drab packaging

Although plain packaging for cigarettes is not part of the Quebec government’s stricter anti-smoking measures that just went into effect, some wish to import the restriction to Canada.

It was also the theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day, which took place on May 31.

Despite the obvious and serious health hazards of smoking, we should think twice before imitating this Australian innovation.

In Canada, federal health warnings on cigarette packages have existed since 1989, and graphic health warnings since 2001.

They now occupy 75% of the surface of packages, placing Canada 4th in warning size among 77 countries where they are compulsory. But this is not enough for some.

Plain packaging forces tobacco manufacturers to standardize all of their packages using the same nondescript colour, the same size and shape, and no distinctive brand logos, or other design elements.

Australian smokers have been forced to buy cigarettes in plain packages since December 2012. Similar measures are now coming into force in Ireland, France, and the United Kingdom, and are being considered in more than half a dozen other countries. The Canadian government is jumping on the bandwagon, too.

But we should have a close look at the Australian experiment before we take the plunge.

As laudable as it is to want to reduce smoking and people’s exposure to tobacco smoke, it is very far from clear that plain packaging contributes to achieving this goal.

After all, would you stop eating fast food if it came in brown, unbranded boxes with a big picture of a dying fat man?

No statistically significant drop in the proportion of smokers had occurred in any of the five Australian mainland states one year after the implementation of plain packaging. According to a different survey and analysis, the Australian government argues that plain packaging, combined with a newer set of health warnings, is responsible for a drop of half a percentage point in smoking prevalence in the three years following implementation, compared to the three preceding years.

Another Australian government survey, though, indicates that the proportion of smokers among minors actually increased between 2010 and 2013, after two decades of decrease. While not statistically significant, this increase certainly suggests that plain packaging is not having the intended effect.

One possible reason for this is that the debranding of tobacco products through plain packaging may lead consumers to “downtrade” to lower-value brands or to no-brand products. This, in turn, would lower the average price of cigarettes and thereby increase the quantity demanded. There is some evidence that this is happening in Australia, and also that plain packaging has led to an increase in smuggling.

Smoking is already tightly regulated in Canada. It is likely that any additional regulation would have a low marginal benefit (if any), and carry high social costs. In all logic, the burden of proof should rest on the shoulders of plain packaging proponents.

A regulation of this magnitude should only be implemented if the case supporting it is scientifically valid, and this is not what Australia’s experiment shows. In case of doubt, the government should not rush to intervene but, on the contrary, should leave Canadians free to decide.

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

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