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Plain packaging: Inconclusive evidence suggests Canada should wait

Montreal, September 29, 2016 – As Ottawa is preparing to impose plain packaging on tobacco companies, a Research Paper published today by the MEI shows that such regulation is not grounded on solid evidence at the present time. Yet while there are uncertainties regarding its benefits, the costs of this policy are clear, and largely underestimated.

Ottawa is following in the footsteps of Australia, which implemented plain packaging on December 1st, 2012. This policy consists of making packs as unattractive as possible: nondescript colour, same size and shape, and no distinctive brand colours, logos, or other design elements.

The most up-to-date analysis tends to show that plain packaging has a positive impact in reducing smoking rates, but there is a crucial caveat: “It’s very important to note that new health warnings were rolled out at the same time as plain packaging. Therefore, their individual impacts are impossible to disentangle from one another,” points out Youri Chassin, author of the study and Research Director at the MEI.

Cigarette packaging already includes graphic health warnings covering 75% of packs in Canada, similar to what was implemented in Australia on that front. The Australian experiment therefore cannot inform Canadian authorities properly about the effects of plain packaging alone.

We must not forget that tobacco is already one of the most regulated and strictly controlled industries in Canada, which is also among the countries in the world where smoking prevalence is the lowest.

“Since the debate over the effectiveness of plain packaging is ongoing, the government should refrain from implementing such a policy,” adds Mr. Chassin. “Plain packaging seems less like a public health policy than a Nanny State policy, or even a fight against the tobacco industry.”

Indeed, plain packaging is a direct attack on branding. This policy targets the basic rights of businesses, including their intellectual property, and it does so without compensation.

“In a civilized society, everything should be permitted unless there is a very good reason for prohibiting it, such as a danger that unwilling individuals will be harmed. Regulation should not infringe carelessly on personal choice as if driven by a new puritanism. If the evidence is still lacking, as it is for plain packaging, the normal course of action should be to refrain from legislating,” comments Jasmin Guénette, Vice President of the MEI. Other countries are now adopting plain packaging and, with time, more evidence will become available. Until then, the proven strategy for reducing smoking rates involves education and sensitization, which are long-term solutions that are respectful of both companies and individuals.

The Research Paper entitled “The State of Tobacco Policy in Canada: The Case of Plain Packaging” was prepared by Youri Chassin, Economist and Research Director at the MEI. This publication was not financed, directly or indirectly, by the tobacco industry. It is available on our website.

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The Montreal Economic Institute is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit research and educational organization. Through its studies and its conferences, the MEI stimulates debate on public policies in Quebec and across Canada by proposing wealth-creating reforms based on market mechanisms.

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Interview requests: Pascale Déry, Senior Advisor, Communications and Development, MEI / Tel.: 514-273-0969 ext. 2233 / Cell.: 514-502-6757 / Email: pdery@iedm.org

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