Are plain cigarette packets a great public health achievement?

I heard that we had just had ‘a great public health achievement’ a couple of days ago, and I wondered. I’m one of those reformed smokers who hates the smell of tobacco smoke anywhere, and has no doubt that smoking is bad for you, even if you don’t die of lung cancer or emphysema. It is also about as expensive as buying petrol for your car, just in terms of the extra tax you pay. A quick piece of rough arithmetic tells us that if a pack costs $12, and the tax in it (at nearly 67 per cent) is $8, and you smoke a pack a day, then at $8 x 365 = $2920 you are coughing up nearly $3000 a year in tax for your habit. As a non-smoker I benefit from all this, as I do from poker machine taxes, so in a sense I have an interest in your continuing to smoke as well as to gamble.

But at the end of your life, you will need a lot of medical care, and then I have to help pay for you. You could point out that, if you are, say 78, and you’ve smoked a pack a day since you were 18, you might have paid in today’s dollars about $180,000 in extra tax, so that should help — and it will. Yet I have mixed feelings about all this, because my interest in public health — and that is long-standing — is matched by my even more long-standing interest in Australia’s being a good society in which people can live the kind of life they would like to live, all things considered, without being told what to do, or not to do, by the state. In the area of cigarette-smoking my interests collide.

There is little doubt that we Australians love to regulate one another. We are arguably the most authoritarian democracy in the world. Our income tax act has 10,000 pages, and we add a few thousand new laws and regulations every year. What is more, most of us try to obey them, too, and believe that we should. Our system has as its basic proposition that we decide who will rule us at elections. Those who win the most votes get into power, and they deserve to rule. If we don’t like what they do we can kick them out next time. But in the meantime we obey the new laws, because we agree that the people who have the power, won legitimately, have the right to pass new laws.

My view now is that we don’t need so much regulation. We do need lots of good information, but so much of what we get is tainted or ‘cherry-picked’ by those pushing a point of view, that it is not wholly reliable. You see a lot of this in the ‘climate change’ debate, where the orthodox point to this paper, or this set of data, while the dissenters point to another paper, or another set of data.

From my perspective the last word on all this was said by John Stuart Mill in his essay on liberty, and he mentioned health, too:

‘The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.’

He also said that ‘stupidity is much the same the whole world over’. So, to pursue the Mill line, provided that there is ample and reliable public information about the true dangers of smoking, provided that smokers are taxed to the point where the public cost of their ill-health is, on average, already paid for, and provided they don’t smoke near me, wherever I am, I don’t see the great need to do anything more.

I would say the same about illegal drugs, too. Making doing things to yourself illegal is a counter-productive way to go, since it leads to many evil social consequences and doesn’t stop whatever the practice is. Finally legalising the private possession and ingestion of cannabis has not, on the face of it, led to the widespread adoption of marijuana.

Alcohol presents a more difficult issue. The American experience with prohibition gives us plenty of warning about what would happen if we go down that path. Violence that is the apparent consequence of too much grog is dealt with by the police. Too-frequent violence  at the same venue can lead to the venue’s being held responsible. Alcoholic beverages are easy to make, so taxing alcohol out of existence won’t work.

Ultimately, as with so much else, the buck stops with ourselves. Some of what we see, like violence outside pubs and clubs, is plainly engaged in by the young. They will presumably grow out of it. All of us have to learn through experience, and most of us remember the lessons. We do our best as parents to shield our children from what is harmful but ultimately, as was true for us, they will need to find out a lot for themselves.

I am no supporter of the nanny state, and see the plain packaging of cigarettes as a success for would-be regulators more than as a great victory for public health. Perhaps it will reduce even further the tendency for young people to take up an expensive and unhealthy habit. But I would have preferred the path of more good information, treating people as rational, rather than as dummies.

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • John Graham says:

    The libertarian argument is in general reasonable. It is not however clear that it is universally applicable to human behaviour in a society and to the responsibility of a society to its members, nor as to how applicable it is to corporations.

    In the case of a smoking habit it is reasonably clear that both the commencement and the maintenance of the habit are not the result of dispassionate and rational decisions. I have never been a smoker myself, but those I know do not tell me that in their teens they took it up on the basis of a rational and independently-made decision that smoking would be a good thing to do, and that in their adulthood they continued on the basis that it would be a good thing to continue. Most are uncertain as to why they commenced, and wish as adults that they could cease. I have never known anyone who commenced smoking as an adult – perhaps a telling fact in itself!

    As I understand plain paper packaging, the policy is aimed at removing a contributory factor to commencement of a smoking habit, specifically among teenagers. Time will tell whether this has been effective, but it certainly does not remove any choice from the individuals in this group, whose capacity to purchase and use the product is no further fettered.

    There appears to be an understanding that smoking is an addiction, and once commenced is difficult to cease, hence a decision to commence in adulthood might be more rational than one taken as a teen. As an ex-smoker you might comment on this.

    Plain packaging was never expected to cause current smokers to quit, at least any more than the prior graphic images on packets did. Again however it does not impinge on any freedom for the smoker who can still purchase and smoke a particular brand without additional restrictions.

    As to the argument that companies have rights also, these are legal and have been explored in the courts. The companies lost.

  • Fay Thomson says:

    Plain packaging is a public health achievement and I quote former Attorney General Nicola Roxan “No longer when a smoker pulls out a packet of cigarettes, will that packet be a mobile billboard”. Current and ex-smokers understand what she is saying.
    What will happen when or if Australia no longer have taxes on tobacco – will it even out with the cost of health? It will be an exciting change when that happens , but at the same time we can handle it so we do not put down smokers or those from another country who are. We just need to stress that we are a country that chooses not to , but we are tolerant.
    Of course we have King James 1 to” thank ” for the taxes on tobacco. He was a turncoat politician if ever there was one. First of all with his dislike of Sir Walter Raleigh he wrote many things, the one that stays with me ” Tobacco makes a kitchen of the inward parts of men, soiling them with an unctuous and oily kind of soot”.
    Then when the new settlement in Jamestown, was a failure he made tobacco the new gold and so taxes from that product began.
    This is the man who was responsible for the King James Version of the Bible, so I think it a good thing that a movie be made titled “From Bible to Tobacco Tax” or should it be “From Tobacco Tax, the New Gold, To the King James Version of the Bible”. Historians would know which one and the movie could be entered in the competition/project Art Toppling Tobacco.
    There could also be a song- what great lyrics would come of this. Great lyrics for the competition/project Art Toppling Tobacco.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Fay, Nicola Roxon is hardly a dispassionate judge of whether or not what she has done is an achievement. Time will tell. My worry is about the state telling us how to live our lives. I think I’m the best judge of how to live my own life.

      John, I said in my own essay that my two beliefs collide here: I do want a healthier society, and I do want a free society. I muddled my way through that tension, probably not very well. And I too started smoking as a teenager, at 17. I don’t know many smokers now, and don’t know anyone who started smoking after 25.

  • […] Don Aitkin wonders ‘Are plain cigarette packets a great public health achievement?': I am no supporter of […]

  • […] Don Aitkin wonders ‘Are plain cigarette packets a great public health achievement?': I am no supporter of […]

  • […] Don Aitkin wonders ‘Are plain cigarette packets a great public health achievement?’: I am no supporter of the […]

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    I am a non smoker and my parents did not smoke either so you would think I
    would be in favour but not so. Recently I saw a series on prohibition in the
    USA and I found the parallels scary. For most in favour it appeared it was a
    moral issue and not a health issue. By assuming an absolute position a
    corrupting societal influence was produced. I think that is where we are headed
    with tobacco since it is unlikely to work and this will push us to an absolute
    ban. I never buy such things as heroin, crack, ice, marijuana but I doubt they
    come in nice branded packets. Besides that a smoker can easily buy attractive
    cases so they will dispose of the packaging at point of sale. It is an
    experiment that is unlikely to work. Organised crime feeds on these excesses
    and will encourage a ban if it can. We all do thing that are not the best for
    our health but we must recognise it as a health issue and to have an effect
    governments must have a consistent believable argument. I think the young think
    they are being conned particularly with party drugs and marijuana and this
    undermines the health message.

  • Fay Thomson says:

    Mike, go through the site of my project , Art Toppling Tobacco and you will read of the agony of many who who are addicted to nicotine.
    Of course it is not going to go away and we must have tolerance. Note that we don’t hear of anyone using snuff now. The only time one hears of it is with those expensive and beautiful snuff bottles that antique dealers sell.
    I forgot to say in previous note that when a documentary eg of King James, Taxes, Gold , Tobacco and the Bible Version, that the smoking of tobacco scenes should be in black and white with switches back to technicolour.
    Don, men may have taken up smoking as teenagers , but I have observed that women adopted the habit later in life, influenced by eg Germaine Greer about the time of “The Female Eunuch”. I bet a lot of the older women I see on park seats, puffing a fag and wishing they didn’t, were influenced by Germaine with that photo of her in Women’s Weekly probably early 1970s.

  • […] “Sigarette no logo: una vittoria per la sanità pubblica?”), il blogger Don Aitkin espone il seguente punto di vista: Non sono un sostenitore dello Stato-balia e considero l’introduzione […]

Leave a Reply