The Australian government recently decided to homogenise tobacco products by forcing them into uniform packaging. A key question is whether ‘public health’ provides sufficient grounds for governments effectively to expropriate internationally recognised trademarks.
The importance of allowing branding in a free market (and therefore a free society) should not be underestimated. In particular, branding enables consumers to discriminate quickly between different products. It is an efficient way of transmitting information in the market. When a consumer purchases a respected brand, he can be confident about the product’s quality. This is a key argument against plain packaging.
John Noble, Director of the British Brands Group, explains:
‘Branding fulfils many significant and positive functions for both consumers and markets. Take it away and consumers lose out and markets become commoditised, with price rather than quality being the influencing factor.’
This means that plain packaging is likely to give succour to the illicit tobacco trade. Ruth Orchard, Director-General of the Anti-Counterfeiting Group has stated:
‘Plain packaging represents an invitation to counterfeiting. If put into practice for the tobacco industry, this could impact on all sectors where counterfeiting is rife. It creates a trading environment where packaging is no longer distinctive and products become easy to replicate illegally.’
As the IEA monograph Prohibitions sets out, there is a strong relationship between restrictive lifestyle legislation and the black market, where products are not safely tested and are sold to the more vulnerable sections of society.
There is also a significant danger that once the precedent has been set with plain packaging, similar legislation will be extended to other areas. For instance, Dr Simon Chapman, the chief proponent and figurehead of plain packaging in Australia, has publicly stated he would like to see graphic health warnings on alcohol products. Indeed it is important to note that ‘sin taxes’ and stronger licensing rules are already in the pipeline for non-tobacco products.
The Department of Health has announced that it will hold a public consultation on plain packaging in the coming spring. The coalition will debate the issue in parliament after assessing submissions from academics, an array of subsidised health lobbies, campaigners, researchers and writers. Most importantly it invites consumers and non-consumers to contribute to the consultation and to register their opposition to the removal of branding rights. A contribution, that, all those who believe in consumer choice, private property rights and individual responsibility, should pursue with vigour.
Amul Pandya is a researcher for the Hands Off Our Packs campaign.