Smoking rises after plain packaging in Australia

My position on has it that it might be justified, if there is evidence it actually reduces smoking rates. If NZ is to proceed with it, I have advocated for a regional trial of it so smoking rates in that region can be compared to the rest of the country after a few years.

So far only one country has implemented plain packaging.  The Australian reports (paywall) on what has happened:

Labor’s nanny state push to kill off the country’s addiction to cigarettes with plain packaging has backfired, with new sales figures showing tobacco consumption growing during the first full year of the new laws.

Policies should be based on evidence, and the evidence is that sales have increased. But maybe they were on an increasing trend anyway, and the law meant they did not increase so much?

The 0.3 per cent increase, though modest, goes against a 15.6 per slide in tobacco sales over the previous four years — and undermines claims by then health minister Nicola Roxon that Australia would introduce the “world’s toughest anti-smoking laws”.

Well that’s a huge reversal.

Plain packaging laws, which came into force in December 2012, have instead boosted demand for cheaper cigarettes, with reports of a more than 50 per cent rise in the market for lower cost cigarettes.

Makes sense. You destroy brand differentiation, and people then just choose on price – and the cheaper prices lead to greater sales. A huge own goal.

Australasian Association of Convenience Stores chief executive Jeff Rogut said sales by his members grew by $120 million or 5.4 per cent last year. “Talking to members, one of the most common refrains they get from people coming into stores is, ‘What are your cheapest smokes?’,” he said.

The law of unintended consequences.

In the wake of the introduction of plain packaging, and the hike in the tobacco excise, 21-year-old Brisbane finance worker Dunja Zivkovic said she has switched to a cheaper brand and smokes more. She said none of her friends had quit in the wake of the policy change.

Both Ms Zivkovic and her friend and fellow smoker, 32-year-old Gertrude Sios, insist plain packaging does not work as a ­deterrent.

“If someone is addicted to smoking, they’ll spend their last $12 on smokes, not food,” Ms Zivkovic said. Geoffrey Smith, the general manager of consumer products at Roy Morgan Research, said plain packaging was “not having much impact”. “It’s causing a shift towards lower priced product rather than ‘I’m stopping smoking’,” he said.

I’ve always been sceptical that brands cause people to smoke, as opposed to cause people to pick a particular brand.

“Smoking kills 15,000 people annually with social and economic costs estimated (at) $31.5 billion each year,” she said. “The latest ABS data shows smoking rates have been continuing to decline.” But data released in recent weeks by the NSW and South Australian governments show smoking on the rise.

Last year’s NSW population health survey, released last month, showed 16.4 per cent of all adults in the state smoke, up from 14.7 per cent in 2011, while in South Australia rates were up from 16.7 per cent to 19.4 per cent over the past year.

Which backs up the sales data.

The signs of increased smoking echo another Labor intervention into health policy — the 70 per cent tax hike on ready-mixed spirits or alcopops announced in 2008.

Nielsen research found that while alcopop consumption dropped by 30 per cent, there was an overall net decline in alcohol consumption of just 0.2 per cent.

People substituted to other alcoholic drinks such as hard spirits.

Some may argue that one year’s data is not enough to judge the policy on. If so, then how long a period would they agree is long enough to then decide if the policy has succeeded or failed?

If three years, then fine. No one else should implement plain packaging until the three years are up, and we can see if smoking rates declined or not due to plain packaging in Australia. So far, after one year, the answer seems to be no.

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