The UK Government wants to introduce Australian-style plain cigarette packaging, despite opposition from Big Tobacco. To what extent can the UK defend the efficacy of this plain packaging legislation?Coates concludes
it appears that the Government has a strong foundation on which it can build a defence of plain packaging legislation. There is strong empirical evidence for the efficacy of plain packaging legislation, and there is apparently sufficient rebuttal to the arguments against the proposals to lead to success for their defence. However, there are still three areas of analytical deficiencies.
Firstly, the experimental evidence in favour of the legislation rests on the shoulders of few studies. There are no British studies providing evidence for the argument that this will undermine the general attractiveness of smoking, and only the Thrasher auction experiment provides empirical evidence that this will decrease demand for cigarettes. On neither count is there sufficiently strong evidence to support a complete defence, contrary to suggestions by the Public Health Research Consortium (2012), which simply accepts both findings. For a defence to rest so strongly on such a level of investigation would be unadvisable. Consequently, further research into the effects of the legislation, eliminating the flaws in the studies noted above, is required. Moreover, a greater focus on complementary policies is required, concerning those currently in operation, and potential future supplementary legislation.
Secondly, cigarette manufacturers, or anti-‐smoking campaigns such as ASH, have conducted much of the other theoretical modelling. Independent, impartial research is required to a much greater degree for a clearer picture of the true effects of the proposal. While academics such as Hammond should be commended for their impartial work in the modelling of smokers’ decisions and behaviour, independent empirical investigations into the UK economy are still required.
Finally, necessity is a factor not fully considered so far. While a conclusion on the question of the necessity of this legislation would require an examination of each of the alternatives in equivalent detail, some preliminary comments can be made. Given that brand power is the focus of the legislation, further advertising restrictions are often cited as a less-intrusive alternative. However, Wei Tan, in his dynamic analysis of tobacco markets (2004), explains that advertising is particularly ineffective for cigarettes. He argues that the determinants of demand are determined independently of advertising (see also Roberts & Samuelson, 1988). Consequently, compared to the level of restrictions imposed, a corresponding fall in demand will be small. Moreover, as firms’ advertising costs decrease, they can lower prices without reducing their profits, which will increase demand for cigarettes more than the restrictions on advertising will decrease it, and so further advertising restrictions are ineffective.
Malcolm Gladwell, writing on the subject of the legislation’s necessity, has decried plain packaging, instead proposing that nicotine levels be limited (Marketing Magazine, March 2012). He argues that under this model, smokers could never become addicted, as they would never reach the addiction ‘tipping point’. This should be rejected as an alternative, though, as it concentrates solely on the non-‐cognitive model of smoking, and does not engage with the issues concerning branding within the cognitive model. While it might have similar effects at reducing relapse, it will do little to actually encourage cessation (Schneider et al. 1981). Moreover, this is not a mutually exclusive alternative. Martin Lindstrom’s suggestions in the same publication are by contrast an alternative to plain packaging, but his proposal of ‘random’ packets is designed to break down brand power, has little empirical evidence in its support. Moreover, the cost of enforcing his policy merely confirms that plain packaging is a better alternative.
Overall, the preliminary analysis and investigations compiled so far suggests that plain packaging legislation will bring the evidential health benefits needed to defend the proposed legislation. However, facing big tobacco, fighting for its rights, is formidable, and further analysis and evidence is needed before the Government can take this bold step, and be confident in its success.