- By Region
The tobacco industry has never lacked for ingenuity in sustaining cigarettes’ appeal in the face of growing awareness of their lethal effect. After all, Marlboro Man was created to give filtered cigarettes a more rugged image, when cancer scares drove men to switch to a product then seen as feminine. But now all such branding is under threat, after Australia’s high court dismissed an industry challenge to a law on standardised packaging.
If international litigation also fails, Australians will from December be buying cigarettes in packets of an off-putting olive-green shade, carrying images of smoking-related diseases and showing brand names only in plain font. The UK is consulting on similar measures and many other countries may follow.
For smokers, this is merely the latest in a long line of restrictions – on smoking in bars, advertising, retail display and so on. For the industry, it is a revolution. In the short term, standard packets are likely to reduce sales only slightly. But companies that have prospered by creating premium brands with a distinct image now face a future in which people may find it hard to tell the difference between them. Some surveys suggest plain packets make smokers less likely even to notice differences in taste.
Bigger brands might find it easier to keep their identity but, over time, cigarette prices are likely to fall – with taxes rising further to prevent this fuelling consumption.
Free marketeers are up in arms at what they view as a wholesale confiscation of intellectual property. Yet their outrage should not stop Australia pressing ahead. The harm cigarettes do to the health of smokers and those around them justifies radical intervention in the market. A compelling argument for standardised packets is that they seem to be most off-putting to young people, who often smoke as a matter of image and are especially susceptible to branding.
If the Australian experiment succeeds, it could give regulators a powerful new tool to promote public health. But it is not inevitable, as libertarians argue, that plain packaging will then be imposed on alcohol, fizzy drinks or fatty foods. Beer or crisps are not invariably harmful, as cigarettes are, and it is in any case easier to make the products look or taste different.
Of course, tobacco companies may adapt, varying the taste and appearance of cigarettes more and promoting brands by word-of-mouth. In Brazil, some packs already contain stickers that can be used to conceal health warnings. Do not underestimate the industry’s capacity for invention.