TOPIC GUIDE: Plain packaging

"Plain packaging for tobacco products is a good idea"

PUBLISHED: 27 Jan 2017

AUTHOR: Charlie Bostock

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In May 2016 tobacco plain packaging legislation was enacted in the UK, to come into effect after a one-year transitional period [Ref: BBC News]. Cigarette packs will now be a single colour, which market research claims to be the world’s ugliest, the brand name will be written in a standard font, size and location [Ref: Brisbane Times], and new health warnings covering 60% of the pack will also be introduced [Ref: Guardian]. The UK’s move, along with others such as France [Ref: Guardian] and Canada [Ref: Guardian], follows in the wake of the Australian Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 (TPP) which required all tobacco products sold in the country to be sold in ‘plain’, standardised packaging, with large graphic health warnings covering the majority of the pack [Ref: Australian Government Department of Health]. The Australian policy aimed “to get rid of seductive and exciting packaging that is specifically designed to appeal to young people and make the idea of starting to smoke less attractive” [Ref: Guardian], reducing the number of smokers long-term, primarily by reducing uptake, rather than directly causing current smokers to quit. But critics of the move towards plain packaging have attacked the hypocrisy of yet another regulation on personal life choices, while continuing to reap the benefits of an estimated £14bn in tobacco taxes [Ref: Spectator]. Several tobacco companies have also made the case that plain packaging legislation has led to “a significant increase in the size of the illegal tobacco market”, costing the Australian government around AUS$1.42 billion in tax revenue annually [Ref: British American Tobacco]. Amid the competing arguments, is plain-packaging for tobacco products an effective public health policy, or is it an illiberal overregulation of our personal life choices?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Is plain packaging legally sound?
The Tobacco industry has rallied hard to overturn plain packaging policies, arguing that it has not been proven to be effective, and that they consider it to be unlawful, “because it involves governments taking property from businesses – in this case our trademarks and other intellectual property – without paying for it” [Ref: British American Tobacco]. “In March 2015, British American Tobacco launched a legal challenge against the UK Government’s decision to implement plain packaging. In an initial ruling, the English High Court found against BAT and the other tobacco claimants, declaring plain packaging to be lawful. However, BAT was granted permission to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeal. In November 2016, the Court of Appeal upheld the original decision.” [Ref: British American Tobacco] Mark Davison, professor of law at Monash University in Victoria, described the industry’s argument as “so weak, it’s non-existent” [Ref: New Scientist]. He goes on to argue that: “There is no right to use a trademark given by the WTO [World Trade Organization] agreement. There is a right to prevent others using your trademark but that does not translate into a right to use your own trademark.” [Ref: New Scientist] Given that the tobacco industry claims that plain packaging will not reduce smoking rates, some critics question why so much funding and effort has gone into challenging the law in the courts, after all: “If it won’t work, why is the industry bothering to waste its money campaigning so hard against it?” [Ref: New Scientist]

Does plain packaging reduce smoking?
Australian academic, and tobacco control activist Simon Chapman has praised plain packaging legislation in Australia as an ‘historic decision’, adding that “when the history of the rise and fall of tobacco-caused disease is written, it will note this momentous initiative” [Ref: New Scientist]. Plain packaging is argued to contribute to improving public health, “by ultimately, reducing smoking and people’s exposure to tobacco smoke” [Ref: Australian Government Department of Health]. World Health Organisation’s director-general Dr Margaret Chan has stated that removing the branding from tobacco packaging, “kills the glamour, which is appropriate for a product that kills people.” [Ref: New York Daily News] Following the 2016 post-implementation review (PIR) into the effects of the Australian legislation, Action on Smoking and Health (ash) claim that, “[t]he analysis estimated that the 2012 packaging changes resulted in a statistically significant decline in smoking prevalence [among Australians aged 14 years and over] of 0.55 percentage points over the post-implementation period” [Ref: ash]. Dr Tasneem Chipty, of Analysis Group, studied the smoking prevalence data in Australia from December 2012 - December 2015 and estimates that, “the 2012 packaging changes resulted in 108,228 fewer smokers” [Ref: Australian Government Department of Health]. The results of the post-implementation review have, however, been heavily contested. Analysis from Australian think-tank the Grattan Institute, shows that whilst smoking rates in Australia have declined since the introduction of plain packaging legislation, it is quite possible that the driving factor was not simply plain packaging legislation, but an additional 42.4% increase in tax rate for tobacco products between June 2013 and June 2015. In fact, they argue that the data suggests that smoking rates actually increased by as much as 6% in the first year after the legislation was introduced, prior to the increase in the excise rate [Ref: Breitbart]. British American Tobacco, amongst others, suggest that even if there have been reductions in the smoking rates in Australia, this is not due to the effects of TPP legislation, arguing that “smoking rates have not deviated from historic trends” [Ref: British American Tobacco].

Sin taxes and the nanny state
The policy has come under further criticism from some who claim it is nothing more than, “an affront to liberty”, and “another example of the nanny state undermining personal responsibility, and holding us, the public, in contempt” [Ref: spiked]. Others argue that from a practical point of view, it simply does not work, and maintain that plain packaging is simply a: “Soviet era-style restriction that does not sit well in a liberal democracy” [Ref: Guardian], and that “an assault on personal freedoms in the name of health is still an assault on democracy” [Ref: Guardian]. Commentator Rod Liddle lambasted the policy as a “laughable moral compromise, epitomised by the idiocy of not allowing tobacco companies to put a nice design on their packets, but still greedily taking money from them.” [Ref: Spectator] Furthermore, there is a fear among many critics that this is the start of a slippery slope towards other unhealthy industries being increasingly regulated by so-called ‘sin-taxes’, leading them to ask: “How long will it be before public health campaigners call for alcohol, fatty food, sugar or even confectionery to be sold in plain packaging?” [Ref: Plain Packs Plain Stupid]. Nonetheless, the policy has received near universal acclaim from health officials, as well as being supported by the World Health Organisation, and one columnist notes that, “smoking stands alone in its harmfulness…it kills more people than drink, drugs, road crashes, all other accidents, suicide and preventable diabetes combined” [Ref: Financial Times], meaning the government is right to take steps to reduce its prevalence. Moreover, The British Lung Foundation argues that the law “will protect children for generations … If just a fraction of […] children are discouraged from taking up smoking as a result of standardised packaging, it will save thousands of lives.” [Ref: British Lung Foundation] So are critics right to worry about a slippery slope? Is this another example of the ‘nanny state’ interfering with our personal life choices? Or do we have a duty to embrace the potential health benefits to our society by continuing to reduce the appeal of smoking?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


The sexy new face of cigarette packaging

Rod Liddle Spectator 3 December 2016

Plain packs: an affront to liberty

Ben Kew spiked 25 May 2016

Why tobacco plain packaging could have dangerous unintended consequences

Thomas Boysen Anker The Conversation 19 May 2016

Britain beware: Australia’s data on plain packs isn’t reliable

Nathan Dabrowski 14 March 2016


Post-implementation review: Tobacco plain packaging

Australian Department of Health 2016

Plain packaging of tobacco products

World Health Organisation 2016

Plain packets may spark a rise in smoking

Neil McKeganey The Times 9 March 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Plain packaging is an infringement of free speech

Brendan O'Neill The Australian 26 November 2016

I miss those smoke-filled days with people behaving badly

Debora Robertson Telegraph 20 September 2016

Will plain packaging on cigarettes stub out desire to smoke?

Paul Friederichsen New York Daily News 2 June 2016

Media Advisory: Standardised plain packaging starts 20th May 2016

Action on Smoking and Health (ash) 5 May 2016

No logo

Economist 4 April 2016

Smoking out the truth on plain packaging of cigarettes

Terry Sweetman Courier Mail 5 March 2016

The slow-burn, devastating impact of tobacco plain packs

Simon Chapman The Conversation 3 December 2015

Smoking, democracy, plain packaging and the Soviets

Richard P. Grant Guardian 23 July 2013

Tobacco companies versus the plain truth

Michael Skapinker Financial Times 16 May 2012

Old moralism in new packaging

Chris Snowdon spiked 24 April 2012


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Public health vs individual freedom

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 15 February 2014

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