Plain packaging: the apparent arguments in favour

This one’s an Ideologically Impure exclusive, because I have better things to do on my weekend than run around inside other people’s circular logic as they insist on making and re-making arguments I’ve already addressed.

But here, after a possibly exhaustive run of the pro-plain-packaging side of things in the comments of this post of mine at The Standard, are what I have seen as the key arguments in favour of plain packaging for cigarettes:

Studies show lack of branding makes products less appealing

Fuck me, it’s almost like branding and marketing are gigantic universal things which have been working on our brains since birth to incite specific responses.

“Aha!” I hear the pro-plain-packagers say.  “So you ADMIT branding has an effect on people!”

Yeah, sure.  When I’m buying cola, I will buy the cola I usually buy because I know the product well.  But I’ll also avoid certain products based on their branding (Snickers’ Paul Henry ads, I’m looking at you) and branding has never been enough to make me buy something I didn’t actively want to buy.

And yes, there’s a lot of complex factors around “wanting to buy things”.  But none of that actually links clearly to the idea, which plain packaging is based on, that shiny packet => makes you want to buy a product in a context-vacuum.

Once you’ve decided to buy a pack of cigarettes, sure.  Branding, naming, all those evil mind-altering factors will almost certainly influence the choice you have already decided to make.

But the brand is a comforting familiar enabler of my addiction!

Yes, I understand that when you’re in a habit, be it physical addiction or just where you go for coffee every day, humans seek out the familiar.

But, as every smoker I know has said, you think people won’t buy fancy cigarette tins with branding on those?  Switch to wanky cigarette holders for that totally evil cigarettes-are-glamorous vibe?  Let’s ban all cigarette merchandise!  You think people won’t decorate their boring plain packs?  Especially, oh I don’t know, teenagers who are already expressing their developing identities by modifying every damn thing they own?  Let’s ban pens!

Plain packaging doesn’t fix addiction.

But kids will be less likely to START smoking!

No.  All the “evidence” produced says roughly the above: taking away the shiny branding makes a thing less appealing.  The shiny branding might be a contributing factor to addiction continuing.

But I’m pretty sure no evidence, in the history of ever, has linked the specific colour and logo and image and wording on a cigarette pack to a person beginning smoking.

It’s another point I’ve raised which has conveniently passed people by:  people smoke because their social groups smoke.  Because their family members smoke.  Because smoking gives them a five-minute break which the non-smokers at their work don’t get (yeah, lifelong nonsmoker still actually a bit bitter about that, me).  Because smoking gets them out of the building.  Because they’re a teenager and they’re going to do something they know is disapproved of because it’s disapproved of.

And yeah, once they’ve started smoking they’ll figure out what type of cigarette they prefer – menthol, low tar etc – and they’ll associate with a particular brand because that’s what they’re used to smoking, because that’s what their friends smoke.

The packaging is not making them start to smoke.  Especially since you hardly ever see the goddamn packaging these days, ANOTHER POINT I KIND OF ALREADY COVERED, JESUS CHRIST.

But sometimes the greater good trumps individual rights!

Who the fuck is talking about individual rights?  Not me.  Unless we count the right to have our government treat us like we’re adults.

This isn’t me on some warpath about the right of smokers to walk around in tuxedo jackets made of Pall Mall packs.  This is about just expecting that we make public policy on the basis of evidence, for actual health reasons, and not because we want to feel superior to smokers.

It’s also about treating teenagers like they too have dignity and autonomy.  Yes, I know, teenage brain not completely developed blah blah – but let’s please look at our wonderful history of treating teenagers like they need to be baby-talked to, aka “we can’t talk openly about our teen suicide rates, it’ll just encourage them to commit suicide more.”  Yeah, that’s done fucking wonders for our teen suicide rates.  And our moves to stop evil teen drinking have been a roaring success, haven’t they?

What’s worked?  Well, we’ve managed, over 20+ years, to change general public attitudes to drink driving.  By putting out campaigns saying “hey, if you drink and drive, you could die.  Or you could kill your mates.  Or you could kill kids standing at the side of the road waiting for a school bus.  Have a fucking think about that, OK?”

Oh, I’m sure ALAC would love to claim that its own “if you drink you’ll get raped” ads played a part, but I don’t think so.  Best anti-drink driving ad of the decade?  Ghost chips.  Because it was clever, it was compact, and it basically served as a giant public “you are going to feel really shit if you let your mate drive home drunk” message.  It challenged current attitudes by saying “it’s not dumb to stop a mate driving drunk, it won’t make you look like a party pooper, it’s the right thing to do so don’t shame people for it.”


Apparently I am practically alone in my understanding of why one works and one doesn’t.

I’m certainly not in favour of young adults doing shit to their underdeveloped brains.  I just know, because I didn’t take the “turn 25 and forget was it was like to be 16” pill, that prohibition and scorn are far less effective at stopping behaviour than information and respect.

But if it won’t affect rates of smoking, why does the industry oppose it?

For fuck’s sake, people, in the past week we have seen Business NZ oppose a paid parental leave bill which does not affect businesses at all.  Doesn’t change the total amount of leave an employee can take, doesn’t cost them any extra money.  Still opposing it.  Because … reasons.

So yeah, why would the tobacco industry oppose plain packaging?

Well, it helps if you remember that the Big Scary Tobacco Industry is actually comprised of individual companies who are in this thing called competition with each other.  So yeah.  Plain packaging is going to cost them money in terms of printing a different set of packs for the Australia/NZ market.  Plain packaging could cost them money because if their brand identity is weakened, and they have no other avenues to advertise to people, no other way to grab the first-time smoker who will be starting to smoke anyway, see above, people are probably going to go for the cheapest brand.  It doesn’t mean they’re not going to smoke, it just means the market share will shift to cheaper brands, so prices, ergo profits, could in all likelihood come down.

(And yeah, that’ll help people stop smoking.)

The packaging and branding of cigarettes is “integral” to the harm caused

This one came up when I proposed we paint all cars white and pull the insignia off them.  Once people managed to address the point and not try patting me on the head to say “silly QoT, cars aren’t cigarettes!” the argument was thus:  the colour of cars isn’t the same as the branding on a cigarette package.

No, I have no idea why this is, and would be quite happy to argue that there’s a lot of social memes and marketing-based entrenched ideas about car colour (red cars go faster) brand (Ferrari and Mercedes = Formula 1 teams ergo speedy, Holden = rally car ergo grunty and masculine) which could very well influence people’s decisions to buy cars which are far more powerful than they need to be, far less fuel-efficient than they could be, more likely to pollute our air and hearing, more likely to drive stupidly and be involved in accidents, perhaps.

I mean, that whole paragraph is based on just about as much evidence as anything I’ve heard about plain packaging.

This is just about your feelings!

Shit, I’m a blogger with an opinion on something.  Lock me the fuck up.  Yes.  This is my opinion.  I happen to think it’s pretty internally consistent, and all the people over at The Standard trying to baby-talk me about how I Don’t Understand Branding have not actually managed to demonstrate otherwise.

Here’s some more feelings:  I’m worried about plain packaging.  Despite BAT’s ludicrous advertising, I think the slippery slope argument works really well – it very well could be alcohol next, but I’m betting money on “junk food”.

Of course, the reason a lot of people don’t see that as a slippery slope is because they have no problem with telling people – especially people who they perceive as making choices they don’t like, who coincidentally are poorer, browner, femaler – that they’re not allowed to choose bad choices.

I guess we’ll just have to wait until it’s something they actually care about, then suddenly the shittiness of making regulations based on no evidence because someone wants to punish them might become clear.

Note on comments:  while I certainly don’t get anywhere near the volume here that I do at The Standard, I am forewarning anyone who wants to try that I’m pretty much over every argument above and will delete attempts to relitigate shit I’ve already covered.

One comment