Being on the wrong side of the cigarette packaging debate

Australia is moving towards legislating that all cigarettes be sold in “plain” packaging, and various New Zealand groups are all in favour.  So are a few dudes I normally line up with on social issues.

On the other side, there’s Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, surprisingly-not-about-masturbation blog SOLOpassion … and me.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to launch into some grand Liberty For All Against The Dark Forces Of The Nanny State argument, like Stephen Berry there.  I’m completely on board with concerns about the health effects of smoking, of secondhand smoke, the fact that younger people and Maori are more likely to be smokers, and of course, the fact that when you’re talking about highly addictive substances it’s a bit fucking stupid to pretend doing it is the equivalent of not eating raw fish or only buying pink tech accessories.

The problem I have is that I have no idea how this is meant to achieve what it’s claimed it’s meant to achieve.

Put it this way:  we’re going to stop young people smoking … by making it more illicit, more Something Your Parents Do Not Approve Of, more exactly-what-appeals-to-disengaged-young-folk?

We’re going to stop Maori smoking by saying “hey, you know that addictive habit we white people introduced, along with alcohol and syphillis, to your culture, which you may be using as an aid to get through the day, a way to socialise during work?  Well you should be ashamed of yourselves, and thank the nice white powers that be for getting you hooked in the first place and now punishing you for it.”

Yes, smoking rates are trending downwards in demographic groups like young Maori women, but this probably has a lot more to do with continuous increases in the price of cigarettes forcing them to space out their smokos than with any actual attitude change towards smoking.

And you know, I realise they’re completely motivated by self-interest, but if BAT and PM are right about the potential to create a black market in knock-off ciggies, that trend could quite happily reverse on itself.

Especially with the above-mentioned “ooh, your mum will hate this!” added vibe.

Add to that a mainstream culture where some of the top-rated shows are about criminals with hearts of gold (Sons of Anarchy), the inevitability of prohibition failing because people like mind-altering chemicals (Boardwalk Empire), and big sexy challenges (Mad Men) to the current push by ASH and similar organisations to pretend that smoking was never cool, never ever, not even in the 70s-pretending-to-be-the-50s.

And what is this all meant to achieve?  Well, it’s part of the much-touted aspiration set by our government, at the behest of their coalition deal with the Maori Party, to make NZ “smoke free” by 2025.

An aspiration that I frankly have a lot of problems with.

Key one?  If you really want to make NZ smokefree, have the fucking guts to just ban tobacco, maybe on some kind of phasing-out process, pour some money into addiction programmes (because it might just pay to remember that people may start smoking for reasons we think are stupid but they probably continue because it’s addictive), stand by your principles and make it happen.  Otherwise, frankly, you’re just a part of the problem, expecting to have your smoking-is-disgusting-and-bad-and-killing-our-kids cake and eating it with a but-we-can-let-another-generation-of-kids-get-hooked fork.

No (foreseeable) government is ever going to just ban smoking, and thus no government is ever going to make New Zealand nominally smoke-free (I say nominally because as we all know, Prohibition was a total success.) It’s just going to be aspirational, and a lot of people will get to feel superior to those Poor Stupid Smokers (including people who are smokers, like Stephen Berry, but seem to take some kind of perverse pride in their dependency).

Even before you take into account the massive resources of the tobacco industry, the fact is that smokers can probably be broken down into two key groups:  (a) people who are addicted to nicotine and feel a bit down on themselves for ever starting the stupid habit and have maybe already got the message just a little bit that it’s bad for them and are a bit fucking over being talked to like they’re six years old*, and (b) people who started because it was rebellious and cool and are already pissed off they can’t have a smoke with their after-work beers** and will definitely be a tad unimpressed at having a bunch of preachy no-fun people taking away their heretofore normal-part-of-Western-culture-for-about-400-plus-years vice.

There’s also (c) “social smokers” who can happily go without a puff for ages, but then just assume the normal proportion of them are against it on various principles of freedom/liberty/free markets/etc.

Another thing that grinds my gears?  Phrases like this:

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia said yesterday that the Cabinet had agreed to introduce plain packaging … but only after public consultation.

Boy, I sure have faith in that democratic process.  It totally bolsters my faith in our political system when politicians show they really want to weigh everything up and debate the pros and cons before implementing exactly what they’d already decided to implement.

Enough from me.  Have some damn funny smokers.


*Yes, you may now play a game of spot-who-has-dated-several-smokers.

**This should not be read as condemnation of the ban on smoking in pubs, I love it.


  1. Moz

    I’m a big fan of just putting the age to buy cigarettes up by one year, every year. The tobacconists claim they'[re not trying to recruit new smokers, so this shouldn’t be a problem for them.

    It would be “silly” in the sense that you’d eventually have 33 year olds allowed to smoke but 32 year olds not. But it greatly simplifies the debate on age checks – can you reliably tell the difference between a 32 year old and a 33 year old? So ID everyone. And very quickly it’d become practically impossible for 16 year olds to buy or smoke at all – if the legal age is 30 there just aren’t any 16 year oilds that can pass. And any advertising would need to be clearly aimed at people at least plausibly of legal age.

    My other preference is what one food factory I worked in did – instead of “smoker anywhere not forbidden” they had a “smoking area”. Specifically, a small toom at the bottom of a stairwell. They never cleaned it, so you had to be pretty dedicated to go in there. But there as an extraction fan that vented on the roof (probably illegally, I can’t image that stuff being legal to discharge).

  2. C. Arthur Monteath-Carr

    The thing about the plain packaging is: Some brands of smokes are cooler than others. I know people who would exclusivly smoke Marlboros or Lucky Strikes, because they were more exclusive brands.

    Making mandatory plain packaging isn’t some kind of magic solution to stop smoking. It’s removing that “coolness” factor.

    Of course, I predict a soaring trade in branded cigarette tins, but them’s the breaks.

    • QoT

      That’s a fine-and-dandy argument, C, except for the fact that no smokers I have ever encountered stand there smoking a cigarette while holding the pack up so everyone can see what they’re smoking. Anyone who thinks it’s cool to smoke Lucky Strikes will just say they smoke Lucky Strikes and use even a plain silver cigarette case, or recycle a Lucky Strikes box if they’re that desperate.

      And once more, I am entirely unconvinced that making something rarer, more exclusive due to price, and more “your parents say no” is going to act as any kind of disincentive …

    • QoT

      I find it interesting that the research cited (and sadly unlinked to because the Herald doesn’t understand how the interwebs words) can find all those things and yet, apparently, not an actual effect on smoking rates.

      Besides, I trust any research commissioned by ASH about as much as I do any Curia polls commissioned by Family First (which is not to say that the tobacco companies are any better, but attacking them because they buy into conventional “girls like glitter” marketing techniques is hardly a killing blow.)

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