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British American Tobacco’s current advertising campaign opposing plain packaging shows containers marked “cola” and “beer” under the question “What company would stand for this? None probably. But that’s because, as BAT knows, the government’s plain packaging proposal allows brand names: packs won’t all have just “cigarettes” on them. Brand names  will appear in standard font on the front of every pack. Unless BAT has information about its customers that a significant number of them can’t read, BAT is misleading the public about what will be involved.

Its efforts to quash this legislation are causing considerable amusement. In The Sydney Morning Herald this weekend, the commissioning editor apparently could not find anyone other than a BAT staffer to write against the proposal. The traditional two for and two against, saw Wayde Bull from the Brand Consultancy, lining up with two tobacco control advocates to support the Bill.

The Australian Retailers Association has lined up to support Big Tobacco, making statements that: “Like retail display bans, plain packaging is likely to significantly increase the time taken to complete a transaction including the sale of tobacco products. Regulations that increase transaction times have been estimated to cost businesses up to half a billion dollars, equivalent to 15,000 jobs. Increased transaction times also often lead to ‘retail rage’ at the checkouts which is a health and safety concern for retail employees, particularly young workers.”

So how might this effect occur? Notice first, that the retailers’ statement quietly folds in the alleged  impact of plain packs into the supposed impact of removing packs from retail display — something that has been the case now for several years. With plain packaging, smokers will ask the shop assistant for their brand, the assistant will then (as has always been the case) turn to the dispensers behind them where the different brands will then, again as always, be stacked in brand columns. The columns will be labelled with the brand names and the assistant will then, as now, instinctively go to the column for the brand requested. Makes sense that this would cause a loss of 15,000 jobs.

The Institute of Public Affairs, which continues to decline to answer questions posed a year ago on Media Watch about whether is still takes tobacco industry money, appears to have half its staff allocated to frantically  re-writing critiques of the proposal. We’ve seen Chris Berg, Tim Wilson and Julie NovakRoss Gittins eviscerated  their  involvement this morning, writing “Libertarians are tireless fighters for private property. But I find it curious the institute is so ready to extend its attitude towards the protection of physical property to the protection of intellectual property such as patents, copyright and trade marks. Protection of intellectual property involves much more overt intervention in the market. It’s the nanny state creating monopolies and conferring them on private firms. This intervention can be justified only by acknowledging the existence of market failure, something libertarians are usually most reluctant to do, and then being satisfied the intervention won’t make matters worse.”

Last week retail associations from 11 European Union nations signed a declaration opposing plain packaging. Retailers profit regardless of which brands sell. Their concern can therefore only mean one thing: they fear plain packaging will reduce overall smoking, exactly the government’s intention. Bring it on.

*Simon Chapman is professor and director of research at Sydney School of Public Health A27, University of Sydney.

Peter Fray

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