Plain Packaging Is Violating IP and Is Making Public Health Worse

In 2012, the Australian government enacted a controversial plain packaging law that forcibly removed tobacco company’s logos from packaging in place of a large and graphic health warning. 

According to the government, plain packaging was, and remains necessary to protect consumers by increasing the effectiveness of health warnings and decrease the attractiveness of tobacco products.

Several years later, plain packaging has done nothing to improve public health. Despite the best efforts of anti-tobacco activists, statistics do not show plain packaging improving public health. In some cases, it has actually caused smoking levels to increase despite the near universal understanding on the dangers of smoking. 

One key claim used to justify plain packaging legislation was that it would help reduce youth smoking rates. According to anti-tobacco groups, youths were encouraged to buy cigarettes because of the shiny, visually attractive packaging. They argued that instituting plain packaging would stop youth, and people in general from buying the product on impulse.

Any rational thinker will find the claim that individuals take up smoking just because the advertising is “shiny” questionable.  In fact, recent statistics show that smoking rates amongst 12-17 year olds has increased 32% in the past two years; at the same time that cigarette packaging has become less visually attractive.

Not only has it failed to curb youth smoking, it has also not done anything to reduce overall smoking rates. Prior to plain packaging being introduced, statistics showed a long-term pattern of consistent decline in Australia for decades. According to government studies, consumption of tobacco products was steadily decreasing around 3% per year. However, after plain packaging was introduced, tobacco consumption rates slowed to a decrease of 0.9% per year.

At the time of plain packaging’s introduction there was no evidence that could be found that it helps reduce smoking. Advocates resorted to using emotive arguments but conveniently left out any statistics to back up claims. Meanwhile, experts have pointed to other strategies that have proven more effective such as programs that raise education & awareness.

So what has the law done?

Well, it has created unnecessary burdens for retailers and has actually resulted in an increase in illicit tobacco sales.  According to a report released by KPMG, sale of illicit products has increased by 25% in less than 2 years.

In addition, the law represents an alarming violation of intellectual property rights because it prohibits companies from displaying their own trademarked brands on their own products.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the link between strong and secure intellectual property protections and vibrant and strong economic growth. However, plain packaging usurps IP rights and set a dangerous precedent towards government control over branding. 

These concerns have led to a World Trade Organization dispute brought forth by several countries concerned with the precedent that this policy is setting. 

Opposition to plain packaging should not, and is not about approval or disapproval of smoking. It is about protecting property rights from government control. Given that plain packaging is actually increasing smoking levels and is clearly violating IP rights, Australia should immediately begin to repeal the law.