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Plain packaging has backfired in Australia – don’t bring it to the UK

10 June 2014

Only one country in the world—Australia—has experimented with standardised packaging for cigarettes. Quite reasonably, people said that until hard evidence emerged from there it would be unwise for the UK Government to introduce a policy that could have serious consequences in terms of crime, compensation for deprivation of intellectual property rights and breaking of our world trade obligations. Critics argued that this was little more than a delaying tactic. But Sir Cyril Chantler, who conducted a review of the public health effects of introducing standardised packaging, reported in April that it was ‘too early to draw definitive conclusions’ from what had happened in Australia.

He also acknowledged that the research he rested his own conclusions upon had been based on people’s ‘stated intentions’ and that such research has to be used with care. He conceded that his findings were essentially ‘indirect and ‘speculative’.

Well, it seems that industry sales data is now emerging in Australia. And in its wake, so is a growing consensus that the previous Labor government got it wrong.

Last week, eighteen months after the Australian Government’s plain packaging laws came into force, new data was published in the Australian, the respected national newspaper, which showed that tobacco sales increased by 59 million individual cigarettes or roll-your-own equivalents last year. This increase is modest – 0.3 per cent – but goes against a 15.6 per cent fall in tobacco sales over the previous four years. This evidence—with the changing consensus opinion in Australia on plain packaging—should, at the very least, prompt the UK Government to pause for thought before implementing similar legislation.


It is no surprise that, given the increase in cigarette sales after the introduction of plain packaging, that the Australian’s editorial stated: ‘Perhaps nannies are hazy about markets.’ It further argued that:

‘Plain packaging deprives tobacco firms of valuable assets — the intellectual property of their marketing. That is a bad precedent. Similar moves could follow against alcohol bottles, food trademarks and much else.’

It’s time for a rethink in this country too. An investigation this month by the Sun revealed that foreign criminal gangs (who are already flooding Britain with dangerous fake cigarettes) are gloating that they will profit even more if standardised packaging is introduced in the UK. They told the Sun’s undercover team that ‘the switch to plain packaging will make their fraudulent trade easier, cheaper and more difficult to detect.’ Indonesian forger Fauz Firdaus even punched the air and exclaimed ‘plain packaging … I support the UK Government!’.

We have made encouraging progress on reducing smoking in the UK and there is still more we can do, for example, putting a ban on smoking in cars. I supported that move because the evidence was there. But to date plain packaging can’t be shown to be more than a risk, and one with criminal and financial implications for the UK.

We should look instead to Germany’s example. Its education campaigns have, in just a decade, reduced smoking rates among the young by more than half. I welcome current UK anti-smoking educational initiatives and believe we should do even more to continue to engage in public health programmes that lead individuals to make better decisions.

Instead of rushing ahead with a policy that is high on grandstanding but low on evidentiary support, let’s build on the progress we’ve made with proven and effective public health programs.

The government can bring in plain packaging whenever they wish. Parliament has passed enabling legislation which means there will be no further votes on the matter. But given standardised packaging’s apparent failure in Australia and the impact it could have on serious crime and our long term economic plan, the Government should go carefully before rushing into the introduction of standardised packaging here.

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  • Just another journalist

    The Australian’s article is fundamentally untrue. Australia’s Bureau if National Stats shows that smoking has, oh wait, fallen. It relies on tobacco companies’ claim that they sold more cigarettes wholesale to retailers. The Bureau of Stats’ figures show that the number of smokers has fallen. The number of cigarettes being smoked by smokers has also fallen. So why are more being sold wholesale? Because there was to be an increase in tax last December. That’s it. Oh, and by the way, the author writes for IPA – a right wing think tank, which reportedly takes funding from… tobacco companies. Go figure. Do your research. The Spectator should be better than this.

  • Phil

    There were 500,000 people migrate to australia last year. That is a polulation increase of 2%. So if tobacco sales increased by 0.3%, thats actually a decrease of 1.7% per person. But such a sham paper as the australian, owned by the same person that made money from hacking the mobile phone of murdered children and the relatives of dead british soldiers will publish anything for a $.

    • Chalk Bunny

      The previous 4 years had seen a drop in sales of about 16%. The slight increase goes against the trend, and has only happened since the introduction of plain packaging.

      • Phil

        assuming your figures are correct, assuming the population was increasing as well then: for the previous 4 years the tobacco volumes decreased by 5% per person, then last year they decreased by 1.7%. In any case its decreasing every year and to try and suggest a reduction in the decrease is associated with plain packaging is bonkers. Real despots are against the plain packaging…..

  • Rancor

    Plain packaging has not backfired at all as reported in this mornings Financial Times, which reports that figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate Australians are consuming less tobacco than at any time since records began in 1959. The data shows that households consumed $3.4 billion worth of tobacco products in the first three months of 2014 – almost $1 billion less than ten years ago. The data is seen as evidence standardised packaging, which was introduced by the Australian Government is 2012, is working as intended.
    Questions could reasonably be asked why Mr De Bois is so keen to go out on the front foot with tobacco company propaganda which are then disproved by official statistics. .

    • Chalk Bunny

      The ABS measures, effectively, money spent on tobacco, and it is clear that last year people spent less money on tobacco than in the previous year. This does not necessarily mean that people bought less tobacco. There’s already evidence to suggest that smokers have switched from premium brands to cheaper packs. For an analysis of what the ABS data really means, have a look at this.

  • Rancor

    Plain packaging in Australia doesnt seem to have “backfired spectacularly” at all judging by this morning’s Times, which shows new figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing Australians are consuming less tobacco than at any time since records began in 1959. Households consumed $3.4 billion worth of tobacco products in the first three months of 2014 – almost $1 billion less than ten years ago. The data is seen as evidence standardised packaging, which was introduced by the Australian Government is 2012, is working as intended.
    Questions must be asked why Mr De Bois is so keen to go on the front foot with big tobacco’s claims which then turn out to be misrepresentation, lies and falsehoods. He would be better off spending more time looking after the interests of his constituents, and not the interests of shareholders of tobacco companies.,Authorised=false.html?

  • John R. Polito

    If plain packaging isn’t affecting Australian smokers then why yesterday did British American Tobacco (BAT) slash prices on its premium brands by almost half, boasting that it now sells Australia’s cheapest pack of cigarettes, just $13 for a 25-pack? It did so because plain packaging is rapidly eroding once strong smoker psychological brand loyalties. BAT had a choice. It could either reduce prices or lose customers to cheaper brands.

    Forced for years to smoke fewer cigarettes harder in order to remain loyal to a brand identify, an identity now effectively destroyed, if this doesn’t show the subconscious influence and power of branding, what does?

    And even if yesterday’s price slashing hadn’t occurred, while cheaper smokes likely have many smoking a cigarette or two more, wouldn’t reasonable minds want to see data on change in the adult smoking rate, and on the youth initiation rate, before jumping to conclusions?

    And is there any debate but that Australia now has the least attractive cigarette packs on planet earth, ones parents may feel a tad more embarrassed to allow their children to see? And what merchant wants to build a colorful store power-wall displaying Australia’s graphic warnings?

    Clearly, intellectual property rights have been destroyed. But should society recognize the right to use color and logos to market the most deadly drug delivery device the world has ever known? Should we tie government’s hands in battling its nation’s leading cause of preventable death?

    While true that the Australian cigarette market is in crisis mode, isn’t that exactly where government wants it?

  • koala12

    Plain packaging hasn’t ‘backfired’

    1, The increase in sales doesn’t account for population increase (assuming these numbers haven’t been fabricated by the tobacco industry).

    2. If the data is correct, the number of smokers has still declined, just current smokers are buying more which doesn’t matter. Plain packaging’s main purpose was never to make current smokers quit.

    3. Never trust the Australian for tobacco related news.

  • davidraynes

    Before paying any attention to Nick de Bois on “plain packaging” I suggest browsers read this”

    Just why is De Bois prepared to put so much effort into supporting the tobacco industry? What is his angle?

    The suggestion that it has “failed” in Australia is not made out, it is far too soon to say. Official consumption statistics would even be affected by a temporary reduction in smuggling as a result of packaging changes. The truly tiny documented increase in consumption is within any reasonable margin of error. there may also be other confounding factors. The whole argument is specious.

    de Bois is wrong too and promoting the “Big Tobacco” line, when he quotes the supposed ‘revelations” by the Sun.

    Labeling has never been an obstruction to mainstream tobacco traffickers and smugglers, I spent years fighting them and know the subject, the methods and the scale and as well as anyone.

    By “fake cigarettes” de Bois presumably means counterfeit.

    He should get his terms right if he wants to be taken seriously, on a subject on which he shows no detailed knowledge.


  • Kitty MLB

    I reluctantly say, what on earth is all this about Mr De Bois.
    I have never smoked, a disgusting and smelly habit and yes
    it can kill people, but they have the right, its their life.
    Eating too much junk food can kill and drinking too much
    Can do the same.Packets plain or otherwise make no difference.
    Yes you banned smoking in cars, honestly if people can be
    trusted to drive a machine that can kill then they should be
    trusted to act responsibily.
    I think that the old socialist and dominating nanny state
    should be sent to a retirement home.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I smoke one cigar every Sunday evening in my garden while waiting for the coffee to do whatever it does. I drink a good stiff 10 year old Single Malt with it and contemplate the universe. They can put the cigars in plain packets if they like.. I don’t mind. You are right, Kitty. Ladies should not smoke.

      • Kitty MLB

        Cigars are more sophisticated then cigarettes.I have
        seen old 50s films with the gentlemanly types like
        David Niven smoking the odd cigar. Long before
        I were born..( a nice decade it looked)
        And no ladies should not smoke or drink whisky,
        especially smoke. Its not very graceful, healthy
        and removes the sweetness of a ladies breath.
        Its good that you are contemplating the universe
        old fellow, if you find out the mysteries of life
        do reveal them.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Ladies can drink whisky. Lady Thatcher indeed did.

          • Kitty MLB

            I like Baileys Irish Cream. I suppose that is
            whisky and Irish Coffee but neat whisky,
            but the neat stuff, No!
            I suppose Margaret Thatcher needed the
            strong stuff when dealing with all those
            difficult chaps.
            Glad the Scottish spelling is being used,
            here, the correct Celts, always superior
            to the Irish.

            • Fergus Pickering

              But Bailey’s, being Irish, is whiskey.o course.

              • Kitty MLB

                O nothing gets past your sharp eyes.That is
                despite you being a 500 year old bearded sage,
                clearly 400 year old mere children need to
                keep up.
                Well at least the Irish don’t wear kilts, something
                I suppose, the Scots don’t need to share everything.

                • Fergus Pickering

                  They do you know. There are green Irish kilts.

                • Kitty MLB

                  O they would have wouldn’t they, thank you for
                  Putting me right again! I’ll wager that you were
                  that little boy at school.
                  Always with his hand up, always with an apple
                  for teacher and who akways had his homework
                  done before it needed to be finished.
                  That assumption, I just know is corrrect.

                • Fergus Pickering

                  Quite wrong. I used to copy great screeds off the cleverest boy in the class, now an Oxford professor. Only the best!. And my fat friend copied my French. Didn’t get him an O level though.

                • Kitty MLB

                  Fat ! Did he call you a skinny Scottish carrot top.
                  I know, he chucked you in the pond, for you
                  to be rescued by that elusive and clever girl
                  with chestnut curls who loved cats, bats and
                  that most cleverest boy in class.
                  Oh and maybe if you copied the French from
                  the cleverest boy in class, maybe your little
                  friend would have passed his O Level French.
                  You should have told him to copy the other boy.
                  But never mind, you clearly are very clever now,
                  a late developer, an issue with boys..
                  you will be a genius within the next 200 years.

  • Alex

    Good start; but then “there is still more we can do, for example, putting a ban on smoking in cars.”
    And for a lovely moment there I had thought that you weren’t an arrogant authoritarian.
    Oh well, you keep proposing yet more big government and we’ll all keep watching you lose voters to UKIP.

  • mandelson

    “We should look instead to Germany’s example.” I agree, in Germany you can smoke in a pub provided it is designated a “Raucher Lokal” i.e. grown ups making their own decisions as opposed to LibLabCon “ban it all”.

  • MirthaTidville

    This smacks too much of the nanny state, for any Government to give it the elbow…They all love to nanny….expect this failure to a High Street, near you,sometime soon

  • Conway

    But given standardised packaging’s apparent failure in Australia and the
    impact it could have on serious crime and our long term economic plan,
    the Government should go carefully before rushing into the introduction
    of standardised packaging here.
    ” Given that this government’s only talent seems to be getting it wrong on every possible occasion, expect plain packaging any time soon.

  • Mike Oddpiece

    Ban smoking in cars? Who are you to say I shouldn’t smoke in my car? Why shouldn’t I?

    • Blindsideflanker

      Because they are politicians and there is nothing more they like to do than meddle in your life and tell you how to live it.

      I wonder if they will attempt to stop smoking in soft top sports cars, if so on what basis.

      • Dick_Puddlecote

        They plan to, it was mentioned in the commons debate. The reason being that it’s just far too complicated for them to differentiate between different makes of vehicle so may as well apply the ban to all.

      • Dick_Puddlecote

        PS: The wording is banning smoking in ‘vehicles’, not ‘cars’, by the way, so also applies to motorbikes and sail boats.

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