Australia is likely to become the first country to legally require cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging. The legislation enforces a standardised olive-green packaging with gruesome images and health warnings. Australia's Labour government considers this policy "very courageous."
The tobacco companies are involved in a last-minute effort to obtain the government's internal legal advice via proceedings in the Australian High Court, hoping that it may influence the ongoing debate. The two bills have passed in the lower house of the Australian Parliament, and are considered likely to pass in the Australian Senate with the support of the Green Party.
Supporters have reduced the debate to one of life versus profits: the president of the Australian Medical Association has urged senators to get behind the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill 2011 and the Trade Marks Amendment (Tobacco Plain Packaging) Bill 2011, claiming that "this legislation will save lives... and we have to send a message to Big Tobacco that people's lives are more important than their profits." In similar fashion, the government have boxed the opposition into a corner, with Health Minister Nicola Roxon accusing Opposition Leader Tony Abbott of needing to "prove he's not in the pockets of big tobacco." Mr Abbott has previously questioned the destruction of intellectual property rights by ministerial 'diktat' and thus must - in the view of the government - prove that he's on the side of not killing people.
The Australian Government believes that by eroding brand recognition, and thereby consumer loyalty, people won't smoke as much. They know that smoking is harmful, and therefore believe all advertisement and promotion of smoking should be outlawed. Olive green was found to be the most repulsive colour in focus groups .
Tobacco companies point to the increased risk of people purchasing forgeries if packaging is standardised, a loss of their valuable intellectual property rights, and complain that a large number of their consumers just don't want this sort of packaging.
On a functional level, the idea may not work. Dr Patrick Basham wrote in the Australian last month that studies which suggest that such a move may reduce tobacco consumption resort to 'rhetorical dogma' and that most studies point to other factors rather than packaging.
Our own Department of Health conducted a review in 2008 which said that arguments in favour of plain packaging were necessarily 'speculative' and that the removal of a market in advertising might result in tobacco companies more actively competing on price, resulting in cheaper cigarettes.
The Australian Labour Government has decided that citizens are too vulnerable to be exposed to packaging, and that a solution to a health problem is to make the offending substance less pleasant. In the food industry packaging and branding have been found to have an impact upon our appreciation for the quality of an item and the perceived taste .
Given that the number one cause of death in Australia is heart disease, and diabetes is also in the top ten, could it be that this experiment in plain packaging is a hint at the future of the nanny state? Why not, some think tanker might ask, remove all labels and branding from chocolate? A study has suggested that beer tastes better from a glass, so to reduce binge drinking why not ban the public consumption of alcohol from non-plastic containers? One of the major causes of visits to accident & emergency is DIY, so why not mandate that in all adverts for DIY the people represented must be ugly and wear olive green jumpsuits?
Such attempts reduce or eradicate risky activities through blandness may seem unlikely (although car advertising is already heavily regulated,) but the coalition government has promised a consultation on plain packaging by the end of the year showing that whilst Labour looked at this and decided not to go forward with it in 2008, thinking inside the Department for Health is that the time is right for reconsideration.
This goes beyond nudge politics: this is a whole new toolbox of measures designed to make life safer and more efficient at the expense of enjoyment. When these ideas gain traction in the UK, we can only hope that the debate isn't polarised into one in which those against state interference are portrayed as being on the side of profiteering from death. A political fashion for mollycoddling and restriction, rather than teaching moderation and allowing consumers choice, seems at odds with libertarian conservatism. One might expect it from a Labour administration in Australia, but let us hope that the government's own consultation knocks this idea back to the antipodes.