The Case for Plain Packaging of Tobacco

A Guest Post from regular commenter Bunswalla:

The Case for Plain Packaging of Tobacco

I’m not a reformed smoker; I’ve never smoked tobacco and I haven’t lost anyone close to me due to smoking-related illnesses. In general I resist being told how to live by the nanny state – or anyone, especially my sister, and I find state interference in legitimate commercial transactions repugnant.

However I support the government’s proposed legislation to enforce plain packaging of tobacco, and I’ll explain why.

Firstly, the legislation isn’t going to force anybody that chooses to smoke, to stop smoking. It isn’t going to prevent them from choosing the tobacco product and brand of their choice. It doesn’t infringe on the personal rights of any person to continue enjoying what they’ve been doing. Ask for 25 Holiday and that’s what you’ll get.

It doesn’t even prevent people that are legally able to purchase tobacco to buy it and start smoking if that’s what they want to do. So the “nanny state” argument doesn’t stand up.

Secondly, while selling tobacco and related products is a legal commercial transaction (subject to the laws around age, advertising, display etc), I challenge its legitimacy. Cigarettes contain a cocktail of more than 200 chemicals, mostly designed to physically addict you to smoking, as well as making sure they burn evenly and don’t go out while you’re not watching (makes you go through them quicker, and hopefully buy some more).

The chemicals in cigarettes, and the smoke created when you burn them, are highly toxic and injurious to your health. There are no redeeming characteristics or benefits from smoking – other than to satisfy a physical craving created by your prior use. What’s more, smoking shortens your lifespan – even Big Tobacco, which fought for decades to avoid admitting that inescapable fact, have reluctantly acknowledged that they peddle death. Their website says “We agree that smoking is harmful.” What they don’t say is “we need you to keep doing it anyway.”

If a corporation tried to introduce a new product called cigarettes today, assuming it had never been practiced, and knowing what we know about the contents of cigarettes and the effects of smoking them, they would never be allowed. The influence and financial clout of Big Tobacco around the world makes it unlikely that any government would ban the practice now, but I believe our government is morally and ethically obliged to do whatever it can to dissuade the public from taking up this toxic habit. I realise morals and ethics don’t always figure highly in government motives, but I live in hope.

Let’s look at the arguments Big Tobacco is putting up to try and get public opinion on their side:

  1. The “it won’t work, people will still smoke so don’t bother” argument. Well, the fact that they’re investing so much in trying to prevent this shows that it’s likely to be successful in dissuading new smokers from starting. If people are still going to smoke anyway, then this should be the best thing to ever happen to the industry. They can stop spending the 10s of millions they spend each year on marketing and promotion, and trying to find ways around the existing legislation, save millions on fancy packaging, and start making super profits.
  2. The “it’s not fair” argument. We created it (the huge marketing and branding juggernaut designed to feed new customers in to the market at a rate the same or faster than their dying customers are leaving it), so we should own it. Well boo-fucking-hoo, Big Tobacco. What you created was a machine designed to firstly lure, and then trap, new (young) customers into a lifetime of addiction, often followed by a slow lingering death. You have no rights to continue to profit from an instrument of death and disease, just because you built it. There are plenty of businesses around NZ that have had their business model turned on its head by the stroke of a politician’s pen, so suck it up.
  3. The “plain packs would make it easier to counterfeit” argument. Again, tough titties. You’re not worried about the health impacts to your gasping customers; you’re just worried that someone else will make the profits that you believe are rightfully yours.
  4. The “infringing on people’s right to choose which brand to smoke” argument. Again, nothing more than a smokescreen. People will still be able to ask for, purchase and consume, all the brands that currently exist. They just won’t be in shiny packaging, that’s all.
  5. The “we have invested in our brands over many years and have a responsibility to our shareholders to do everything we can to defend our rights to use them” argument. Yes, now we’re getting closer to it aren’t we, vultures? This argument and the ones above are all about the profit you’re worried you might lose because fewer people may be inclined to start using your noxious addictive products, and you might not make so much money. Perhaps your shareholders should have chosen a safer bet than to invest in a (literally) dying industry, and hopefully they’ll exit your businesses as fast as they can and put their money into something more ethical – such as blood diamonds or Chinese sweatshops.
  6. The final canard: the “this is the thin end of the wedge – just think what products will be forced to use plain packaging if this succeeds” argument. A total red herring, in the same way that people argue if gay marriage is legalised, soon everyone will want to marry their pet, their son or their toaster. Alcohol (as a legalised drug) is the product most often quoted as next cab off the rank if the nanny state has its way. It will never happen, and nor should it. Alcohol – while not minimising the harm that irresponsible and excessive use can and does cause – performs an important role as a social lubricant and has a number of recognised health benefits, when taken in moderation. Tobacco has NO recognised health benefits and is harmful taken in any quantity.

I’ve given a lot of thought to reconciling my general principles described above with the undoubted benefits to society of fewer new smokers taking up this vile and toxic habit. No doubt there will be many on this blog that think my position wowserish and that freedom of choice should be paramount. I’m a firm believer in freedom of choice but there are reasons why P and other addictive drugs are treated so much more seriously than smoking a bit of pot or dropping some E. Cigarettes are purely a nicotine delivery system and nicotine as a drug is almost as chemically addicting as the varieties of meth and heroin out there.

We should do everything we can to help young people avoid becoming addicted to smoking.


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  • Lion_ess

    McDonalds is doing more damage to young people than cigarettes – plain package that too? Soda drinks, energy drinks, alcohol next. In fact all forms of nutritiously-dead food in colorful packaging
    This is nanny- state thinking – Ministry of Packaging anyone?

  • Mitch82

    I can’t make that mental leap to seeing how it’s going to deter young people from taking it up. There’ll be a short opening for someone to make ‘3rd party packaging’ before they ban it, but young people will still smoke. It’s not the packaging that gets them smoking, it’s the ‘I can’t have it so I want it’ psychology, along with trying to fit in with the ‘cool kids’ that are already doing it.

    If they wanted to do something effective for cutting smoking, they should just eat humble pie and embrace the Allen Carr method. I tried everything over the years – patches, gum, Zyban, a whole lot of quack remedies, plenty of books. Allen Carr’s ‘The EASYway to Quit Smoking’ completely changed how I look at it. It has the highest success rate out of any cessation method I know of. Yet the Quit Smoking groups still treat him like a pariah.

    Guaranteed there’ll be a few other ex-smokers that know what I’m talking about with EASYway.

  • Brian Smaller

    I have to disagree with the poster of the main article. Nicotine in and of itself is not a particularly dangerous drug. it is the vector to get it into the body that causes the problems. Prolonged inhalation of anything other than air is not good for any living thing. Plain packaging is just bullshit. Either ban tobacco or leave the tobacco companies and their clients alone. I have been subjected to the same advertising, seeing Cig company logos on racing cars, sports team uniforms and so on, and had the same peer pressure as everyone else – but I managed to avoid smoking despite parents who smoked and a couple of siblings who did. All that advertising didn’t make me start, and it wont make anyone else start either. A huge proportion of young people have tried dope, and it is sold in plain packaging, is not on display at the dairy and there is no advertising for it.

    • Redbaiter

      I agree with Brian.

      Either tobacco is made an illegal substance or the industry is left alone.

      End of story.

      • Bunswalla

        Red, I love your black and white positions but the reality is there are shades of grey. Do you disagree with all previous initiatives that imposed controls on the industry? For example, banning smoking in workplaces to prevent second-hand smoke affecting people, discouraging pregnant women from smoking to affect the health of their unborn children?
        If you think there’s even some benefit in these then you accept that an industry that sells products that cause cancer when you use them the way they intended, needs to be controlled in some ways. If you believe inflicting second-hand smoke on others is fine, and putting poisons into the bloodstream that feeds developing foetuses is a good thing, then that really is the end of the story.

    • Bunswalla

      Brian you agree that smoking is bad for you, whether it’s the drug or the delivery system that causes the damage is neither here nor there.
      If advertising and marketing doesn’t influence behaviour then please explain the advertising and marketing industry. If advertising and marketing doesn’t help big tobacco to get more new customers, then please explain why they’re spending millions of dollars in order to be able to continue doing it.
      Good on you for not taking up smoking – shows you’ve got a brain. My parents and both older siblings also smoked, and the inability to get a breath of fresh air after dinner was probably what put me off it as much as anything else.

  • cows4me

    They put dope in plain old tin foil and it doesn’t seem to slow them down.

    • Bunswalla

      Dope isn’t chemically addicitng, and doesn’t kill you.

      • reitama

        really….then why is it illegal? Caused enough problems around the people i grew up with….

        • Bunswalla

          It’s illegal for a whole lot of historical reasons, but none of them is that it’s addictive or kills you.

  • Rodger T

    The legislation is there pure and simply to make it look like the unemployables in Wellington are working while they play solitaire on their work computers,like prayer it gives the illusion they are doing something when ,in fact, they are doing nothing.

  • reitama

    sorry, i do not agree with this poster, happy that he/she has their opinion and willing to share it – but can’t agree with the argument..i am an ex smoker 40-60 a day.

    My own opinion is Alcohol is more dangerous to New Zealanders, but this seems a bit hard to our polly’s to make – especially when all those near 18 will be voting for them next election.

    • Mitch82

      Exactly. Politicians will always be the last to the party, they’ll make their mind up to do something about it when it won’t hurt them in votes. I don’t smoke weed, but anyone with half a brain can see the idiocy of waging a war on cannabis, while alcohol and cigarettes are legal.

    • Bunswalla

      Alcohol is safe except when abused. Tobacco is harmful in any quantity.
      Out of interest, why are you now an ex-smoker?

      • reitama

        cause the chick i was going with said give up or no nooky…..

        • Bunswalla

          Smart chick. clearly a keeper. Just hope the saltpetre in the fags hadn’t rendered you impotent by then.

      • Mitch82

        Alcohol is a toxin in the human body, no matter which way you slice it. We (society) just enjoy it and have been allowed to enjoy it for so long that we’re not willing to call a spade a spade yet.

  • Get a grip

    I find it interesting that its OK for smokers to have freedom of choice but not the suppliers. Either there is freedom of choice or there isn’t. Sorry but your opinion is nannism. ie you know better as YOU believe that its not good for someone else to smoke.

    To have opinions on any old subject is fine. Entertaining but not overly meaningful. To have an opinion on a philosophical point (ie Freedom of choice) is much different. You are indicating you have an opinion on a philisophical point “The government knows best” and should do everything and anything it can to reduce harm.

    If this is the case then I expect you to support the heavy taxation, restriction on supply, and plain packaging of items containing a high level of sugar. This evil “sugar” does way more harm than tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs.

    That is of course if you point(as per your opinion piece) is that the government knows best.

    • Mitch82

      The cigarette manufacturers will do fine out of this. Every retailer I’ve talked to said cigarette sales have either stayed the same or gone up since they were put out of sight. If anything the companies will save on packaging and be able to drop prices a little, kinda like what JP and others have done with softpacks. Plus ‘cigarettes’ and ‘smoking’ are every 10th’s word in the media at the moment, which is all free advertising for the companies.

      In theory they’re a demerit good the same as alcohol, so that would mean that plain packaging needs to be applied to booze. Now imagine the shitstorm the breweries and distilleries will stir up if you mentioned it just once in Parliament.

      Seems to me like the government just wants to be seen doing ‘something’, so it can’t be used against them.

      • They will also drop quality, profits will soar with plain packaging, I don’t know why they don’t just embrace it.

        • Redbaiter

          Maybe because there is a principle at stake.

          • Mitch82

            Which is?

          • Redbaiter

            Our forefathers died fighting fascism.

            Now our young are so under-educated they don’t even recognise it when its right in their faces.

          • Bunswalla

            How I laughed when you suggested big tobacco is fighting for the right to continue to spend millions on branding and marketing on principle!
            Have a look at their website, they talk a lot more about preventing counterfeiters from eating into their profits and having an obligation to maximise the returns for their shareholders than they do about principle. In fact they don’t even mention principle once. You’re being sucked in Red – open you rmind and have a think about why big tobacco wants to keep marketing their deadly products.
            I assure you this industry has no principles whatsoever.

    • Bunswalla

      I’m not suggesting that the government always knows best, and if you read my post I make that point strongly.
      It’s not my opinion that smoking is bad for you – it’s an undisputable fact. Even the tobacco companies admt that their product is harmful. The first thing they say on their propaganda website is “We agree tobacco is harmful”
      Is it your opinion that smoking is not harmful? Do you know better than the tobacco companies and health researchers?

      • Get a Grip

        My point is not about the harm or not of tobacco. My point is about a philosophical point on freedom of choice as opposed to an opinion.
        The wording of your post appears to have a philosophy that the gummint knows best(re plain packaging).

        There is no published research that shows the impact of plain packaging as there is not yet any place in the world that has such a system in place.

        The Australian experience will be unusable for research as they increased the tax on cigarettes at the same time they introduced plain packaging.

        So your opinion is just that. ie you dont think people should smoke because its not good for them. Freedom of choice has been removed.

        • Bunswalla

          GaG – you and most others seem to not be comprehending what I’m saying. This is undoubtedly my fault – maybe too many words. So here’s my view, as succinctly as I can put it.
          1. Smoking is harmful – this is a fact, not an opinion.
          2. Smokers should be free to smoke if they want – I’ve never said otherwise.
          3. Companies that make and sell harmful tobacco products should be hampered in their efforts to introduce new, young smokers to their toxic addictive products.
          That’s all.

  • Hagar

    Smoking should be like sex, not in front of children , participants must be over 16, in the privacy of ones home, or in parlours for adults only!


  • SJ00

    Smoking is bad for you, I think everyone can agree on that. The governments (National, Labour whoever) response is bizarre. Plain packaging, graphic pictures, hiding them, restricting there use, over taxing them, banning advertising, all of these suggest its a product that shouldn’t be sold. And yet it is. Its legal. If its that bad for you, ban it. Simple. Of course they won’t. They get too much tax from it.

    What I would like to see happen is the tobacco companies to call their bluff and pull all products tomorrow in this country. No more tax from sales. I’m sure Philip Morris et al can afford to not have the revenue from this country. And then watch what the government does. Of course they will say ‘yah, no more tobacco’. Deep down, they will shit themselves. Millions in tax and GST will stop overnight (like we can afford it). And then, an underground market grows. Gangs will most likely get into it, it will be bigger than dope. Smokers are going to pissed at the government (more than they already are).

    My problem is, who is next after smoking? Booze is the next logical target. Then…? Fast food. Bad food. Drugs (the bad ones, but maybe some of the good ones). Guns? Cars (they kill alot of people, mame, injure). TV? (watching too much tv is bad for you, apparently). Xbox. Cellphones next to your head or balls? Banned from going outside (sun, smog, god knows what else). Yes these are stupid comments. But seriously, its a small step.

    My point is, its a legal product, either ban it or leave it alone. Its already the most restricted product I know of that I can still buy over a counter. Is plain packaging seriously going to do anything to stop people smoking? No. Its bad enough walking through Countdown now and all I pretty see is white and red packaging for ‘Homebrand’. I don’t want everything I buy to be in plain packaging and for us all to be wear white jumpsuits.

    And no, i don’t smoke, never have (maybe 1/2 a cig in total) and I think its disgusting, someone blows smoke in my direction and they hear about it. But the last thing I need is some PC a-hole telling me what I can and can’t do based on what they think is right or wrong. And therefore I’ll stick up for smokers, who aren’t doing anything illegal, and the suppliers who make and sell it, likewise aren’t doing anything illegal.

    • Bunswalla

      SJ you miss the point. Nothing in the legislation is a PC a-hole telling you what you can and can’t do (unless you happen to be a cigarette maker, which I doubt). You can still choose your poison, get it into your lungs and live with the consequences – well for a time anyway, then the public health system i.e. tax-payers will probably pay for your choice to start smoking.
      What next after smoking? Nothing. The slippery slope argument is a total red herring. No other product is designed to kill you if you use it the way it’s intended – not one. Anywhere.
      Supermarkets don’t sell home brands because some PC a-hole told them to. They sell them because, stripped of the expensive branding and packaging, they cost a shitload less to buy and their profit margin is higher.
      Big tobacco is lying through it’s teeth by saying this won’t work. See Cam’s point above – you’d think they’d embrace this change if it wasn’t going to affect the number of new customers they get and cause them damage in the long run. Their profits would be higher for a while, but they know that ultimately they’ll lure fewer and fewer new customers i.e. young people. Research shows if you haven’t taken up smoking by the age of 18 you’re very unlikely to. Anything we can do as a society to help people avoid this vile, toxic, cancerous waste of time and money is to be applauded.
      I agree that the government has become dependent on tax and excise, GST etc from tobacco sales, but it has to wean the country off dependence on this source of revenue, just as they did when they banned tobacco sponsorship for sport.

      • SJ00

        I don’t agree Bunswalla. Nothing in the legislation YET, but its the next step. Whoever comes up with this crap won’t retire and say ‘job well done, plain packs are signed off’ are they? No, next might be the size of packs, nothing bigger than 10s. or 5s. Or 1 at a time. Silly? Yip, but why not? Then the size of cigs themselves. Lets make them half the size. etc etc. Lots of bullshit when they could just ban it. Stop pissing around, and have the guts to ban it, or let it be.
        True, your point about products designed to kill you is valid, but not everyone dies from smoking. But you cannot possibly think ‘they’ will stop with smoking. WO has posted about baby formula already. The Fat Tax people are only going to get stronger. There are reports that say eating red meat will kill you earlier. So lets ban meat! No eating meat in public. Meat has to be hidden at the supermarket. And its in plain packs, you can’t see what you are buying. Again, its silly, but I bet when someone suggested ‘no smoking on planes’ there was enough people laughing at them. Don’t be silly enough to think the slippery slope doesn’t exist.
        Agree about supermarkets and why they sell plain packs, but my point was, why isn’t everything in plain packs then? Lets just get rid of brands for everything. in fact, lets just have 1 company producing everything. Why have competition. Let the government control the prices etc etc.

        I will almost guarantee plain packs won’t reduce smoking levels, or at least to a noticeable level. Firstly, alot of smokers put their cigs into those metal tins, or just don’t care about the packs. Its about stripping a brand of its identity, and that I disagree with. Again lets just have ACME Ltd do everything for us. The three things that would work would be 1) putting up the price to stupid levels 2) restricting how you buy it (ie not the corner store, but say a tobacconist or something like an R18 shop 3) ban it.

        • Bunswalla

          Mate I think you’ve been watching too many movies, or reading too many conspiracy theories – or perhaps writing them?
          To suggest that passing this single piece of legislation (exactly as our closest neighbour on many levels Australia has recently done) spells the end of any choice anyone will ever have about what we buy, eat, drink, consume, or what legislation we enact, is taking things just a tiny bit too far.

  • Phar Lap

    Nice little tax grab from smokers.Last i read was the take was One Thousand Three Hundred Million Dollars.Helps pay out Maori Grievance industry and keeps Waitangi Tribunal,and Maori Council afloat.

    • Bunswalla

      Thanks my equine friend – three more reasons to knock it on the head!

  • NayFaye

    A couple of points to add: 1 – Cigarettes contain over 4000 chemicals, not 200. At least 60 of which are known to cause cancers. The rest are nasty things like acetone, tar, ammonia, arsenic, butane, carbon monoxide, benzene, cyanide, methanol (yes that’s the stuff in anti-freeze)… the list goes on! 2 – The “plain packs would make it easier to counterfeit” argument doesn’t stand up because it simply isn’t true. There are already sophisticated measures in place to stop packets being illegally copied and the same will be true for plain packaged cigs. Unless Big Tobacco feel that the measures they currently adhere to are not stringent enough that is??