The government is not breaking new ground with its proposal for plain packaging of cigarettes.

At this very moment you can buy a range of products that have no branding, that have plain packaging and whose quality control is variable at best.

The Australian industry turns over at least $12 billion annually, which is about $2.2 billion more than the $9.8 billion retail turnover of cigarettes, according to data from 2007/08.

Worldwide the industry has a retail turnover of some $400 billion.

Historically, the industry has never resorted to product advertising or sponsorships, has no shop front as such and has relied on word of mouth as its main marketing tool.

Demographically, the industry tends to target younger cohorts, but the use of the product is not confined to them.

Some use the products socially, others become chronic abusers while others become addicts and need assistance to manage their addiction or be weaned off it.

What is this plain-packaged product?

It is the range of illicit drugs available on our streets.

That’s right; cocaine, cannabis and its various derivatives; heroin, amphetamines, various party drugs and so on.

All of these can be bought in a market that, according to the Australian Crime Commissioner, was worth $12 billion in ’07/’08.

The then boss of the ACC, Alastair Milroy, made the claim in The Sydney Morning Herald of September 27  2007. The report said:

The flow of money out of Australia to pay for illicit drugs could exceed 12 billion Australian dollars (10 billion US dollars), the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) estimated Saturday.

ACC chief executive Alistair Milroy told The Sydney Morning Herald that the figure dwarfs estimates by Austrac, which monitors money laundering, and by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

“Certainly we think that current estimates of the size of (drug) money leaving Australia might be conservative,” he said.

Other estimates put the value of the trade at about $7 billion, but either way you slice and dice it, the plain packaging of illicit drugs does not hamper its use.

Research shows that 39% of Australians over 14 have tried illegal drugs, with almost three million people having used them in the past 12 months. This compares to 20% of people 14 years and older who smoked, according to data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey in 2001. Currently just 19% of the population smokes.

It would seem that plain packaging does not stop people using illicit drugs, nor does heavy-handed policing if the figures are anything to go by. It would seem unlikely from these statistics that plain packaging will make much difference to young people trying cigarettes, as some have attempted to justify the proposal.

So this raises the question of just how effective the plain packaging of cigarettes will be?

The answer is that at this moment no one knows, but we do know that it doesn’t impact on the illicit drug market.

From Agitate’s perspective, the real issue at stake with plain packaging is that the government is being extraordinarily heavy-handed in its approach.

Tobacco is a legal product and as such should not be forced into a plain packaging regime because of some wowserish whim of Health Minister and her nanny state supporters in the media who think they can laud it over an individual’s rights and corporate rights.

Let no one be in any doubt that plain packaging is not the end, but the beginning of a regulatory regime that will see attacks on other products that are deemed to be unhealthy by the nanny state.

Just think of the campaign that is now being waged on alcohol by the Cancer Council, which has already expressed interest in health warnings on alcohol products.

Think also of the campaigns associated with caffeine, whereby do-gooders are trying to impose their view that it should not be combined with alcohol or that more than four cups a day will do you harm.

The list of products that will come under the wowsers’ eyes is as long as the list of products that a consumer can enjoy.

Yesterday the federal opposition has thrown out its credentials as a beacon for individual rights by capitulating to government and media pressure to support plain packaging.

For a party that purports to support the rights of an individual over the state, this is an appalling state of affairs.

To support a move to have a legal product stripped of its rights should be anathema for such a party.

Yet it seems that pragmatism has triumphed over ideology and conviction.

It seems that we now have white-bread politicians in plain packaging on both sides of the House.

PS: Thanks to HillbillySkill on Twitter for prompting the thought for this article.

*This story first appeared on Agitate.