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Policy debates are best when the fight is between good and evil.
These are the fights that journalists understand. There’s no need to grasp complex trade-offs, opportunity cost or monetary economics. We only need identify the goodies and the baddies.
Goodies support good policy. Baddies oppose it. To know what’s right and good we need only determine who’s saying what. That’s where journalists play their part. They also take it on themselves to make clear who are the goodies and who are the baddies.
So any debate between tobacco companies and health officials and lobbyists should be easy to resolve. Or is it? Australia has been the first country to introduce plain packaging laws for tobacco and New Zealand looks set to follow. The Australian laws come into effect at year’s end and are subject to several legal challenges.
The New Zealand government says it expects to follow Australia and has announced that public consultation will be undertaken this year.
The idea is that plain packets with just a big health warning aren’t cool for young people and therefore serve to reduce the uptake of smoking.
Otago University marketing expert Professor Janet Hoek found that young people said of plain packaged cigarettes: “They don’t look trendy at all...it's just budget...it's like, lame…there isn't a cool colour. It looks so boring.”
Professor Hoek concluded that tobacco companies spend big money to develop brands therefore, "it is logical to assume that decreasing these appeals would, over time, reduce the behaviours they stimulate and support.”
That view is reinforced by tobacco companies being against plain packaging. Their concern must surely be that plain packaging will dry up the next generation of smokers.
But tobacco companies have invested heavily in their brands. Plain packaging largely destroys that investment. The packets will all be the same even though the blend of tobacco inside differs in subtle ways that I don’t understand but which matter to smokers. Smokers have their brand that they smoke and that brand matters to them and to the company that owns it. That’s to be largely destroyed through plain packaging.
Let’s be clear. Tobacco companies have as their prime aim profit. They profit through selling an addictive product that kills. But just because they’re against a policy doesn’t mean that we should all be for it. That simply isn’t logical.
Public health officials and the health lobby have as their goal the health of New Zealanders but having a good and noble goal doesn’t make you always right.
I don’t think we can resolve policy debates by identifying goodies and baddies. We need some evidence that plain packaging works. And that’s where the entire debate falls over. Turns out there’s none.
The expert panel advising the Canadian government concluded that, “Most kids receive their first cigarette from friends. There is no brand choice – the choice is simply to smoke or not to smoke”.
But it’s worth a shot, surely, even if it stops one kid smoking. I am not so sure. What if plain packaging actually increases the uptake of smoking?
The price is already set to rise through tax hikes to $20 a packet. At some point the black market in cigarettes either grown locally or smuggled into the country must become financially attractive to criminals.
I suspect plain packaging makes black market cigarettes all the more likely. The loss of brand recognition also means a loss of distinction between legal and illegal.
Driving cigarettes underground would boost tobacco sales no end. Plain packaging and the black market have certainly worked wonders for cannabis.
• Matthew Hooton is on holiday. He will return next week.
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