Standardised plain packaging for cigarettes is to be introduced in England, following a comprehensive review of the evidence which found unbranded packs could cut the number of children starting to smoke.
It’s disappointing news, particularly given the very sketchy evidence on which the policy is based. Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging, and the results have been far from definitive. Overall, cigarette sales have actually increased following the introduction of plain packaging. And this follows a number of years of declining sales. It’s possible plain packaging is responsible for precisely the opposite result that policymakers were hoping for.
Even the small pockets where a drop in sales has been identified provide no comfort for the public health paternalists. It’s far more likely that these declines are due to the tobacco excise hike that was introduced by the government at the same time as the plain packaging policy was being implemented:
At the King of the Pack tobacconist in central Sydney, James Yu shakes his head despondently as he says his cigarette sales volumes have plummeted 30 percent over the past year.
For his part, Yu says his business has been slowed not by the new packs but by old-fashioned monetary deterrents – a 12.5 percent rise in tobacco excise at the end of 2013 that increased pack prices from an average A$17.50 to A$19.70.
“Smokers don’t mind plain packaging actually, the critical thing is the price hike,” Yu says from his cramped booth, a view that is supported by other sellers polled by Reuters.
This is an important point. Causation is difficult to nail down at the best of times. But in the case of plain packaging this difficulty has been compounded. By introducing a number of policies in the same period the government has made it almost impossible to distinguish which measures have had the intended impact and which have not. Not only has government stepped into a role it should never occupy but it may never know whether it is even meeting its own definition of success.