Shall we fight tobacco with "plain packaging"?
By Alberto Mingardi
The “war on tobacco” has long been one of the priorities of governments’ healthcare policies all over the world. Libertarians tend to be skeptical of the very idea. If we deem the individual to be the legitimate owner of her own body, then we shall accept that an individual is free to damage it as they please. This doesn’t mean that we do not see a role for other persons to offer their advice, their encouragement, their power of persuasion to achieve a broader social appreciation for more wholesome and healthy lifestyles. You can be a pretty consistent libertarian, and find praiseworthy those parents that, by the virtue of their example and their teachings, raise kids that do not smoke cigarettes or pot. The problem is: a libertarian doesn’t believe that you can legitimately use coercion to make people healthier.
Well, a fair amount of other people do believe that you should use coercion to make people healthier. So let’s, for once, accept their premises, and thus the idea that the “war on tobacco” is a legitimate endeavor for governments. However, as in any war, the way battles are fought should matter, shouldn’t it?
Yet sometimes you have the impression that governments are consciously over-reaching. For example, the war on tobacco could be fought basically by taxing cigarettes upon the assumption that demand will decline because of higher prices (a fair assumption, although the higher the taxes, the higher the incentive to buy tobacco in the black market); by educating younger generations on the dangers of tobacco in schools; or by regulating the ways in which tobacco products are sold. Governments rely on a mix of these three strategies. I would maintain that the second strategy is rather uncontroversial, the first tends to be the most effective, the third is the one in which health authorities tend to overshoot.
A recent example comes from Ireland, that is pondering the introduction of so-called “plain packaging.” Plain packaging is a kind of regulation that will take away all recognizable items from a cigarettes’ packaging, including the producer’s brand. The idea behind is that the “coolness” of smoking is associated with the allure of particular brands, whereas turning cigarettes into “generic” products may substantially decrease their appeal. It will also be a big blow for the industry. The times when tobacco manufacturers were competing by investing enormous amount of money in advertisements and sponsoring sport races are long gone; but what kind of competition will be, the one between essentially similar products that can’t be even seen as “different” by consumers?
On the top of that, the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers note that:
In Ireland at the moment it is illegal to display or advertise tobacco products in any commercial context, including registered retail outlets. However, tobacco products are openly on view in illicit markets. Packaging is only visible to adult smokers when they purchase their cigarettes or tobacco and allows them to easily differentiate their preferred brands from other products.
The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors in Ireland, expressed concerns that plain packaging may undermine intellectual property.
Personally, however, I find plain packaging troublesome from another perspective. I suppose all the “war on tobacco” policies start upon the assumption that tobacco is a poisonous substance. And yet if we are dealing with products that are potentially dangerous, a proper branding should be allowed. Brands convey information, and, if you want to get poisoned (after your parents, your teachers, t.v. and government have informed you about all the dangers of cigarette smoking), you should be able to do this with products you clearly identify. This is particularly needed, as new issues are regularly raised with additives and ingredients of cigarettes: if some are considered potentially more dangerous than others, the consumer should be able to easily distinguish between products.
It doesn’t seem to me that the fact that a product is potentially dangerous for somebody’s health is per se a good argument to consider freedom of choice irrelevant, and thus to avoid differentiation. Rather the opposite: precisely because a product is poisonous, I shall retain the full right to choose my venom – as not all poisons are the same.