• May 21, 2024

Beware the nanny state

 Beware the nanny state

Christopher Snowdon

Plain-packaging laws infantilize adult consumers.

Christopher Snowdon image

Christopher Snowdon is the head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs in the U.K.

He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion and Velvet Glove, Iron Fist.

His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics.


By Christopher Snowdon

Canada is the most recent country to make plain packaging of cigarettes compulsory in a bid to cut the rate of smoking, following Australia and the United Kingdom’s lead as governments around the world introduce or consider similar legislation. All this despite the fact that there is no hard evidence to suggest that the introduction of plain packaging had any impact on tobacco consumption and smoking trends in Australia, where the law was introduced in 2012. The potential implications for packaging and branding are huge, extending far beyond the tobacco sector, threatening government interference in many aspects of the average person’s daily life.

In 2016 Britain was ranked as the third-worst country in the European Union on the Nanny State Index, a list put together by the U.K. Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). According to the IEA, a nanny state is characterized by “the excessive interest and influence of the government on the lives and choices of its citizens.” The introduction of plain packaging in Britain broadens this excessive influence even further, infantilizing consumers by stripping them of their freedom to make their own decisions in accordance with their own judgment. Informed adults are able to make educated decisions about cigarettes and other products regardless of packaging because they live in a country where there is freedom of information, and they should be trusted to do so.

The U.K. and Australian governments have effectively decided that the use of trademarks, branding and logos can be forbidden on the premise that it will discourage children from buying adult products. For the food and alcohol industries, this is an alarming concept; if one industry is deprived of its intellectual property then all those who own trademarks should worry. How long before the public health bodies call for plain packaging on fast food, pizza, breakfast cereal, alcohol, sugary drinks and other consumer goods? In Britain and Australia, some have already begun to do so.

Plain-packaging laws are based on the unproven belief that cigarette packaging encourages nonsmokers to start buying tobacco. They require the removal of trademarks, logos and colors, with the brand name being replaced by a uniform, standard font.

Trademarks exist because they are important for both consumers and businesses; crucially, they inform people of the quality, reliability and consistency of a product. For businesses, plain-packaging regulations compromise the intellectual property of their brands, which may have taken decades to develop. This is a potent infringement, as ultimately companies are stripped of the associations with their brand.

What is being dangerously ignored is the potential outcome of plain packaging implementation and the legal precedent set by it. These laws could boost organized crime, hamper investment, affect jobs and damage small businesses—and Australia bears witness to it all.

Regardless of the measures, nanny state regulations are generally ineffective. The claims that plain packaging facilitates lower rates of tobacco consumption are not supported by empirical evidence, and studies such as the 2016 Nanny State Index show that countries that have imposed rigorous regulations on alcohol and tobacco do not have lower rates of consumption.

Plain-packaging laws are a prime example of paternalistic governments becoming involved in the private lives of their citizens. In contrast with nations that advocate free choice and respect the decision-making power of adults, plain-packaging regulations have infantilized British citizens, suggesting that without governmental interference British adults are unable to make responsible decisions. The free market is founded on property rights, including intellectual property rights, and it is deeply concerning to see governments sweep them away so lightly. Where this trend will go should be the most serious question.