Goodbye plain packaging, or is it au revoir?

So it's official. Neither the UK government nor the European Parliament will be legislating to put tobacco in plain packaging. It looks very likely that minimum pricing for alcohol will also be dropped. This is rare good news for those of us who yearn to see the day when the state recognises that not every back-of-a-fag-packet idea dreamt up by the public health industry should become law.

There is regulation, there is over-regulation and then there is price-fixing and obliterating intellectual property. Plain packs and minimum pricing cross the Rubicon of what is acceptable in a free society. Basic levers of competition such as price and branding are essential to functioning markets. They should not be sacrificed on the whim of single-issue campaigners. What advocates of plain packs fail to recognise about those who resist them on this issue is that the battle is not about tobacco, it is about how far government should restrict packaging, branding and intellectual property. We say that 100 per cent is too much - far too much. For now, at least, it seems that the government agrees.

The decision - which was announced along with the results of a public consultation that shows a solid majority against the plan - will elicit a quiet sigh of relief in other industries that are in the cross-hairs of the public health lobby. With health groups calling for a total ban on alcohol advertising and graphic warnings on wine bottles, the 'slippery slope' argument can hardly be dismissed as fantasy. Indeed, if plain packaging deters underage consumption (the main claim made by advocates, albeit with feeble evidence), there is every reason to extend it to booze. Put simpy, if plain packaging is introduced for tobacco, it may well be rolled out to other products in due course. But if it isn't, it won't.

Jeremy Hunt's decision to reject this absurd policy is brave and commendable. It appears that he has gone against the wishes of many Department of Health bureaucrats in resisting the scheme and there are questions for the DoH to answer when the dust settles. Who was the "senior Whitehall source" who told the Guardian that plain packaging was a certainty back in March? How were activists on the other side of the world getting information from the DoH long before it was released publicly? Was it appropriate for the state to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' pounds campaigning for a measure about which ministers claimed to have an open mind? And why is public money still being given to campaigners for plain packaging and minimum pricing despite both policies being kicked into the long grass? State-funded lobbying of this sort is, at the very least, a waste of our hard-earned money.

 

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