When it was announced that the UK would again be planning plain packaging legislation, Twitter was awash with libertarians decrying the nanny state, quoting 1984, and bemoaning our further descent into a controlling authoritarian regime. Apparently, removing branding from cigarette packets will somehow result in a reduction of our individual freedom. "The state is inhibiting our ability to make a choice," one Tweeter cried. "There is no evidence Plain Packaging works," claimed another.
The first point I'd like to tackle is the 'nanny state' accusation. I am all for protecting individual freedom - 'nanny statists' have a valid point when talking about freedom of speech and privacy laws. But this legislation does nothing to impinge on individual choice and liberty. Smokers will still have the freedom to choose whatever brand of cigarettes they want. If they want a Marlboro Gold then they can ask for one - it just won't say so on the packet. The only restrictions will be on the cigarette companies whose raison d'etre is to sell a product that costs the NHS £2billion a year and directly causes 100,000 deaths a year in the UK alone.
The next point is against the claim that plain packaging doesn't work. The libertarian brigade believe that as rational human beings, we are perfectly capable of making our own choices, regardless of how a product is dressed up. However, this argument betrays a lack of understanding of how marketing and branding actually works.
In its simplest form, marketing raises awareness of a product, its price, where you can find it, and why we should use it. At this level, the rational argument holds some water. However, the majority of marketing works on a much deeper level. Anyone who has read Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize winner psychologist Daniel Kahneman will be aware that a huge amount of our decision-making is emotional not rational. When we first come across marketing (or indeed anything), the primitive part of our brain (the amygdala) makes an immediate decision to categorise it as a threat or safe. A positive relationship with a product - through generating emotions such as happiness and nostalgia or even just familiarity - will make us more likely to engage. The power of emotion is the reason that John Lewis spends so much money on their Christmas ads. A fake penguin love story has very little to do with John Lewis or what they sell, but the positive emotion generated by the story builds a bond that leads to greater brand loyalty. This is nothing against John Lewis, whose working practices are to be applauded - all companies who want to stay in business are at it. Tobacco companies used to be the biggest users of this technique. Children of the 80s will remember Russ Abbot lighting a Hamlet cigar whenever things went horribly and humorously wrong, leading people to associate release from hardship and unwinding with inhaling smoke into your lungs. Alcohol companies continue to do something similar.
Packaging does not have the power of a penguin love story but it does create a connection with the consumer. In his best-selling book Easy Way to Stop Smoking Allen Carr cites 'wanting to look cool', or to fit in and to gain an identity as one of the main reasons young people take up smoking. Branding is one way that helps to provide this identity for the impressionable starter. The cigarette brand becomes a badge of identity in much the same way that Nike trainers and Base headphones do (I admit I'm out of touch on these brands). For the seasoned smoker, the branding maintains an ongoing relationship - the familiarity of the packet connects with all the other motivations of smoking such as relaxation and stress-relief. Simply looking at the packet will create a desire to experience those feelings. As an ex-drinker, I still look at a bottle of Old Speckled Hen with feelings of nostalgia, as it links to a time when I was in a pub with friends after a hard day's work. Plain packaging will remove this link and (in my opinion) will undoubtedly lead to a drop in smoking rates. It obviously won't do the job of eradicating smoking completely but it will be another important step along the way.
The true threats to our freedom are the profit-led corporations who continue to grow in power and dominate our everyday lives. I am happy to live in a society where our government still has the power to stand up to them, especially if it saves the lives of millions. Far from creating a nanny state, this legislation is a victory for freedom and democracy.