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Keep Health Warnings Off Junk Food

08/05/2014 12:12 EDT | Updated 10/05/2014 05:59 EDT
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FILE - This combination photo made from file images provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows two of nine cigarette warning labels from the FDA. A judge on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 blocked the federal requirement that would have begun forcing U.S. tobacco companies to put large graphic images on their cigarette packages later this year to show the dangers of smoking and encouraging smokers to quit lighting up. (AP Photo/U.S. Food and Drug Administration, File)

In 2011 Russell Davies, head of planning at the advertising agency Ogilvy and Maher, made a bold prediction: governments, he said, instead of banning the sale of certain products outright, will gradually turn to prohibiting their advertisement.

His forecast was for the next 25 years. But I'm afraid he'll be vindicated much sooner.

The tendency for governments to increasingly regulate the advertising industry, whether in the name of consumer protection or for health concerns, is already on full throttle. After cigarette packs, don't be surprised if sooner or later you see plain bags of chips on the shelves of convenience stores, or plain-packaged chocolate bars. Prohibitive mindsets never get satisfaction, and don't fear the slippery slope of well-meaning regulations.

Writing in The Guardian, Davies said: ''In 25 years, I bet there'll be many products we'll be allowed to buy but not see advertised -- the things the government will decide we shouldn't be consuming because of their impact on healthcare costs or the environment but that they can't muster the political will to ban outright. So, we'll end up with all sorts of products in plain packaging with the product name in a generic typeface - as the government is currently discussing for cigarettes.''

Around that time, a group of American health professionals was even asking mascot Ronald McDonald to retire because of his links to what they consider to be junk food. The same group campaigned against mascot Joe Camel in the 1990s...

Now, more and more companies fear being next in the moral police's crosshairs. Chocolate bar maker Mars, in particular, worries about the legal and consumer knock-on effects which the introduction of plain packaging could have in the UK, as was announced by ministers earlier this summer. (Plain packaging involves removing all logos, colours, and lettering associated with companies' brands, and sometimes replacing them with graphic health warnings, as is the case on cigarette packs here in Canada.) According to The Times, the fear is that plain packets for cigarettes might be extended to sweets and chocolates to combat obesity.

A lawyer from the company was quoted to say that the measure could only be ever justified if there was empirical data that it worked, and that no other viable solution was available. Unfortunately, self-righteous pressure groups and politicians rarely let facts get in the way of a well-meaning regulation, freedom of choice and property rights be damned. Especially if this regulation has the benefit of smacking ''greedy'' big corporations.

But whether it affects cigarettes or chocolate bars, such measures deprive brand owners of their intellectual property rights and, this, without compensation. It also creates confusion among consumers about both origin and quality, and boost sales of counterfeit products.

And yet the facts show that the plain packaging policy's health effects are marginal at best, as illustrated by an expert panel study commissioned by Health Canada in 1995. In Australia two years ago, this policy didn't have the effect the government intended. If anything, the opposite seemed to happen. Total tobacco consumption rose, and illicit products thrived -- which hurt Australian's small retailers.

It seems like tobacco may be just the first victim in a global attack on branding. Other products deemed ''sinful'' may well be targeted in the future, like fast food and alcohol.

But we must keep in mind that branding is a fundamental characteristic of a competitive marketplace. And right now politicians stand on a steep, slippery slope that could lead to private property and intellectual property violations, and destruction of brands. The economic consequences should be weighted carefully. And such policies backed by solid empirical data, not merely good intentions.

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