The plain packaging decision

For some reason the Government has been unable to e-mail out the official statements, so this is based on listening to the press conference. But the decision appears to be:

  1. New Zealand will follow Australia and legislate to allow for mandatory plain packaging of tobacco products
  2. The regulations to implement the law will not be activated until the conclusion of the WTO cases a number of countries have filed against Australia for its decision

 The second part of the decision is sensible. Implementing it prior to the WTO cases being concluded would just open New Zealand up to possible trade sanctions. As a country that has benefited from WTO decisions in our favour (such as apple exports to Australia), it is important we obey the rules we agree to.

In terms of the main decision to implement plain packaging, if legal, my views are:

  1. It is desirable and appropriate for the Government to take measures to reduce smoking rates, considering the cost to the health system of smoking, and the devastation to families by early premature deaths. Various policies have lowered the smoking rate massively over recent times.
  2. Tobacco is a dangerous addictive product that kills even if taken as intended. It is fundamentally different to say alcohol which is fine in moderation. Also in my experience the vast majority of tobacco users are addicted and desperately want to give up and regret they started. By contrast the vast majority of drinkers have no desire to give up alcohol, rightfully so.
  3. I do not like the precedent of the Government confiscating intellectual property such as brands from private businesses. Tobacco companies may not be popular, but they sell a legal regulated product. My concern is that various groups will use this decision to advocate plain packaging and confiscation of brands and intellectual property for other companies such as alcohol and “fast” foods and “fizzy” drinks. Make no mistake that this is on their agenda.
  4. Taking the competing beliefs of (1), (2) and (3), I would support plain packaging if it stops young people taking up smoking. Tobacco is different to other products and I believe the gains from fewer young people smoking outweighs the damage caused by the precedent of intellectual property confiscation.
  5. However there is no evidence that plain packaging will reduce the uptake rates of smoking, or the overall smoking rates. The so called evidence is laughable – basically a few surveys of teenagers asking them if they find plain packs less attractive than branded packs. Of course they say yes. That is very different from whether the pack design would affect their decision to take up smoking or keep smoking.
  6. My preference, as previously stated, was to trial plain packaging in one area of New Zealand, and compare to change in smoking rates to the control group in the other area. This would allow its effectiveness to be measured without being contaminated by other policies or initiatives such as increases in tobacco taxes. If it was shown to be effective, then  it would be rolled out to all of NZ and made permanent.

A science-based approach is far preferable to making a decision based on hope.

However the decision has been made, and will be implemented so long as legal under WTO rules we have agreed to. What my hope is that the Government will still at least try and monitor its effectiveness and see if it impacts smoking rates by trying to isolate the impact of plain packaging from other changes such as excise tax increases, or advertising campaigns.

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