America, don’t buy into failed plain tobacco packaging

America, don’t buy into failed plain tobacco packaging
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Australia just hit the five year mark for their tobacco plain packaging mandate. It’s lack of success should be noted by U.S. regulators.

Imagine you walk into a convenience store to purchase your favorite cola and every bottle is just a black liquid with a black label. In Times New Roman 12-point font, each bottle has a product name but you can barely see it. No colors, no symbols, no branding – nothing but Soviet-style government labels.

Consumers are poised to ask, where’s the drink brand I want? Is this even the right product? Regardless if consumers get those answers, they’ll still probably get the cola they desire. People will either grab an Orwellian product off the shelf or turn to the streets for some under-the-table exchange.

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That’s what plain packaging does – it suppresses products to the black market. When the government prohibits branding, it not only robs consumers of information but it doesn’t even accomplish its public health goals. Although it's a well-intended initiative, plain packaging is bad public policy.

The first product to face the nanny state tide of plain packaging regulations was tobacco. Australia – the first-ever country to enact a nationwide plain packaging decree – experienced effectively no benefit from the policy. Despite this reality, some U.S. non-profit organizations continue to push falsehoods and support plain packaging. Last year, the World Health Organization even pushed a wildly misguided information campaign dubbed “Get ready for plain packaging.”Although the goal to reduce smoking is noble, plain packaging mandates are ineffective and costly, and ignore proven harm-reduction tactics.

The facts are in the numbers.

More young people actually began smoking during the first years of Australia’s plain packaging mandate. Smoking rates among Australians in the 12-24 year-old range increased from 12 percent in 2012 to 16 percent in 2013, the first year that plain packaging was fully enacted.

Although proponents of this regulation want the public to believe that plain packaging reduces smoking, there’s no such link. Unfortunately, there’s more negative consequences that accompany plain packaging mandates than just a failure to reduce smoking.

The Australian government is spending approximately $12.69 million AUD over 10 years to enforce this failed policy. Although we don’t know precisely how those millions of dollars would be better spent by entrepreneurs and consumers, we do know that the Australian government is missing out on approximately $1.6 billion AUD in additional tax revenue.

With the government vetoing so much potential tax revenue, it’s no wonder that they have a flourishing black market for tobacco. With tobacco tax increases paralleling Australia’s plain packaging mandate, a dangerous underground trade took the place of many legal marketplace sales. Since black market tobacco is much cheaper than the heavily taxed legal products, this should come as no surprise.

To make matters worse, the country’s black market isn’t just some smokers maneuvering around nanny state regulations. Indeed, an investigative report implicated Australian customs agents for smuggling tobacco into the country. As part of a greater organized crime ring, a web of border officials worked in conjunction with criminals to smuggle drugs and tobacco into Australia. Nothing highlights the asinine nature of nanny state regulations more than government officials using their positions of power to profit from them in the black market.

Despite the obvious signs suggesting that governments scrap plain packaging, it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. There’s now debate about extending such a poor public policy to other consumer products like soda and junk food. Again, if the goal is a healthier society, plain packaging is the last policy model to achieve harm reduction.

Australia implemented plain packaging for tobacco in order to reduce smoking rates and hopefully have a healthier society. However, the government has kept vaping and e-cigarettes illegal, products that are the main alternative to traditional tobacco and play a critical role in harm-reduction. Since vaping products are less harmful than traditional tobacco and help people quit, one would think Australia wouldn’t ban them. The U.S. has a similar problem with vaping regulations.

Although regulators sell a uniform message that highlights public health concerns, the failure of their blanket prohibitions and plain packaging mandates tell a much different story. U.S. regulators should be wary of making the same mistakes.

Matthew Boyer is a Policy Analyst for the Consumer Choice Center (CCC) and the Media Relations Associate with Students For Liberty (SFL).