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Plain Packaging Won't Help Canadians — But It Will Hurt Retailers

It is time for the federal government to slow down the runaway train of plain packaging legislation until all the benefits and impacts have been identified.

09/29/2017 12:10 EDT | Updated 09/29/2017 12:11 EDT
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As federal legislation regarding plain packaging for tobacco products works its way through the system, two important pieces of evidence could, and should, have an impact on how our lawmakers decide to proceed.

The first is the results of a survey of neighbourhood convenience store retailers. They were asked to answer a series of questions about how they run their businesses and about how they believe the proposed legislation would affect them, their employees and their customers. They were NOT asked to give a direct opinion on the law itself, but their answers are telling nevertheless.

For the sake of context, understand that the retailers answering the survey are also the people with easily the most experience in how tobacco packaging and placement affects the retail experience. They have been on the front lines of the fight to reduce underage smoking and work hard every day to make sure tobacco products don't end up in kids' hands.

Yet their perspective on the law that would theoretically help to further reduce youth smoking is less than positive. In fact, an overwhelming majority say that it will impact negatively on the security of their stores, force staff to work longer hours and damage the customer experience by slowing down transactions.

Overall, there was no statistically significant decline in smoking that could be attributed to plain packaging.

The Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCSA) has developed an infographic that summarizes the findings of the survey. The main thing to be learned is that changing the way that tobacco is packaged will have a significant impact on the people who sell it.

But of course, it can be said that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, and no doubt the federal government is willing to add to retailers' burden, so long as it is for a good cause. And while we can all agree that stopping kids from smoking is just that, the latest news from Australia suggests that plain packaging is not really helping curb smoking at all.

In 2012, Australia introduced plain packaging legislation very similar to what is being proposed here. But recent survey results released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show that in the four years immediately following implementation of the new rules (2013-2016), the downward trend in smoking rates actually stalled for the first time in 20 years.

As pertains to youth, smoking rates in Australia had actually gone up prior to 2013, and between 2013 and 2016, they simply returned to the previous downward trend. Overall, there was no statistically significant decline in smoking that could be attributed to plain packaging.

Given the many potential challenges identified by retailers here, and the evidence from down under that plain packaging is not having the desired effect of discouraging smoking, perhaps it is time for the federal government to slow down the runaway train of plain packaging legislation until all the benefits and impacts have been identified and studied. Smoking rates are declining regardless, and the only sure thing about plain packaging right now is that it will be a pain for retailers, a pain for their employees, and a pain for consumers.

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