Among the Liberal Party of Canada's stated goals before the last election was to introduce Australian-style plain packaging laws for tobacco products. This appeared under the guise of improving public health, especially for impressionable teenagers. The underlying idea behind this directive is the belief that youth smoking is a result of brand appeal, and that making the product more bland and ugly will counter this. The empirical evidence on the effects of plain packaging, however, do not support this claim. Plain packaging is, in fact, a costly practice with the potential for serious unintended consequences.
Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging laws in December 2012, with France's plain packaging law only in full effect since January this year, and the United Kingdom's laws fully in effect from this month. Evidence from Australia is all we have to understand the effect on public health, given how recently these laws were implemented in other countries. If plain packaging really did work as intended, a general decline in smoking would be expected, especially among those ages 15 to 18.
The evidence, however, does not indicate that any meaningful change has resulted from the law. The Australian Bureau of Labour Statistics data shows that in 2013, tobacco consumption rose by 0.3 per cent, with a decline beginning only after they raised taxes on tobacco at the end of that year.
This suggests that plain packaging had little effect on tobacco consumption, with some evidence that it actually encouraged more smoking. Pro-plain packaging campaigners argue that while these laws may not affect those who already smoke, they would discourage new smokers, especially among impressionable teens. This is not supported by any of the data in Australia.
In reality, plain packaging laws have driven up the black market for tobacco, which makes it easier for teens to get their hands on cigarettes. Illicit tobacco has become an issue of huge concern in Australia, and is a growing problem in the UK, as increasingly harsh restrictions on legal products encourages foreign imports and black market sale. As branding disappears, people turn to street dealers who sell what appear to be the packs they like, with no regulatory oversight, enabling the sale of counterfeits.
Plain packaging is at best ineffective, and at worst, increases the black market.
Canada has already seen high teen marijuana use compared to alcohol, presumably a result of easier access via the black market. Raising demand for these illegal products means more dealers, increasing the likelihood that they solicit on schools and campuses -- thereby leading to more young people buying and using tobacco.
Teen smoking is in decline in Canada. Age restrictions and regulations on the display of tobacco products prevent teens from seeing them on display in stores. However, Canada already has a major problem with illegal tobacco, mainly in the highly regulated provinces of Ontario and Quebec. So far, regulation hasn't worked. Street dealers, who sell foreign or counterfeit tobacco that retain brand appeal, are not subject to plain packaging laws. This allows them to market their products as having a "cool factor" more easily to teens.
The unintended consequences of such a policy have the potential to do more harm than good. Social norms around smoking are changing, and smoking rates are in decline. Plain packaging is at best ineffective, and at worst, increases the black market. The current government should consider this if it is truly concerned with public health.
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