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Patronising People: Why is Plain Packaging Plainly Wrong? – Charlie Kingsbury

More and more countries have begun contemplating whether or not to introduce plain packaging for products containing tobacco. Not only does such a policy fail to produce the outcomes governments intend, but it also fails to respect the intellect and freedom of choice of individuals.

The UK government announced in 2012 that it would conduct a consultation on whether the United Kingdom should adopt a policy of plain packaging for tobacco products such as cigarettes and cigars. The consultation failed to provide the answer which the government was originally looking for, and as such the policy was not included in the following Queen’s Speech (an outline of the government’s agenda). Rather unexpectedly, the government commissioned a new review in 2013 in the hope that it would show evidence that plain packaging would reduce the uptake of smoking for children.

Despite the evidence contained in the 2014 report being inconclusive, the government was minded to adopt such a policy regardless, and in early 2015 all businesses were prohibited from displaying any products containing tobacco. The argument is based on the idea that interesting and attractive packaging is simply too much of a temptation for people to bear and stop themselves from ambling towards the shop counter, zombie-like in their grim determination to smoke. In short: people are stupid and need to be protected from their easily influenced desires.

Such an assertion affords individuals little respect for their independence; it patronises individuals by explicitly telling us that we’re not clever enough to see past the pretty packets of cigarettes and understand what it is that we’re doing to our bodies. Full disclosure: I’m a smoker, and I know full well that smoking isn’t good for me. But, it’s my body and I alone should be able to decide what I’m doing to it. Besides, young people who smoke with the intention of ‘looking cool’ often opt for minimalist brands, ‘roll-ups’, or simply the cheapest available. It may well be the government’s role to make sure I understand the implications of my choices, but it isn’t to patronise and tell me that my choices are stupid.

In fact, I rather think it’s the government that’s being stupid in even contemplating plain packaging. I started smoking after the display ban came into force, which means it wasn’t the pretty packaging that tempted me. The brand of cigarettes I smoke definitely aren’t the most attractive looking, but I do it anyway. On the other side, I know someone who is literally obsessed with Shakespeare, and she was miraculously able to resist the temptation to smoke Hamlet cigars. Why? Because people aren’t as stupid as the government thinks.

J. S. Mill-style liberalism aside, we should be basing policy on evidence, and since plain packaging was introduced in Australia in 2012 there has been no evidence to suggest that uptake has decreased at all. What we end up getting is an overbearing but well-meaning state which patronises one’s life choices through a policy which in effect does nothing. Worse, after some time, the lack of distinctive brands could make it far harder to determine whether a packet of cigarettes is the real deal or if it’s a cheap counterfeit with heck knows what in it.  In fact, following the smoking ban in the UK (2006) a number of ‘smoking parties’ were held as a way of sticking two fingers up at ‘The Man’. The more the state attempts to regulate behaviour, the more some people are likely to smoke as an act of defiance.

The futility of this policy is frankly laughable. In many countries, cigarettes are decorated with grotesque pictures of all sorts, and yet people still buy them. Demand for cigarettes is inelastic: it would be like legally requiring all toothbrushes to be packaged in a dull beige box. It’s just not going to change anything, because people will always need toothbrushes, and people who smoke will always buy more irrespective of how boring you make them look.

Liberals should fight governments which seek to patronise one’s self-regarding actions in the name of well-meaning but misguided policies based on inconclusive evidence, and that means opposing plain packaging of cigarettes too, even if it’s not exactly a sexy policy.

Charlie Kingsbury is Vice Chair of Liberal Youth (UK), and is also a board member for a group called Liberal Reform, which promotes economic as well as social, political, and personal freedom within the Liberal Democrats.


  1. I definitely agree upon the debat of packaging looks of tobacco, however I do feel like the actual thought process WOULD change for some people, not to buy it and possibly stop, and isn’t that what counts? Just my opinion 🙂

    1. As I say in the article, once you’ve started smoking quitting is quite hard. Demand is therefore inelastic, and you could cover boxes with pictures of rotting lungs (which they do!) and it won’t deter people.

  2. Does plain packaging really limit people’s freedom to choose which cigarettes they smoke? If not, then this would not limit the freedom of individual people to buy or smoke cigarettes.

    Of course it would limit the freedom for companies to decide on the design of their products. Which is again questionable. However, this is a different issue, and I think the two shouldn’t be confused.

  3. The problem isn’t that it inhibits people’s choice, Krijn, it’s that it erodes away at the respect for individuals’ capacity to choose.

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