GIPC’s misinformation on plain packaging

Gabriel J. Michael / gmichael at gwu dot edu

Protip for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: it’s generally not a good idea to support your policy positions by pointing to the hardships of one of the most reviled industries on the planet.

The Chamber’s Global Intellectual Property Center (GIPC) recently published a blog post entitled “Plain Packaging: Keep Your Hands Off My Doritos,” but a more accurate title would have been “Keep Your Hands Off My Cigarettes.”

The blog post warns that plain packaging—a health and regulatory policy applied to tobacco products, designed to render them less attractive to buyers—would turn “grocery store shelves into an unnerving art gallery of morbid graphic images, or even the opposite—a brandless Orwellian muddle of boxes and bottles.” Given that plain packaging currently only exists in one country (Australia) for one type of product (tobacco), this warning has no basis in reality.

The author purports to be concerned about “recent reports coming out of New Zealand (and to some extent, California) about potential new restrictions on the use of trademarks for many of our favorite snacks and sodas due to health concerns.” Oddly, as of the time of writing, the New Zealand link provided was broken, and the California link makes no mention of trademarks, instead discussing warning labels.

It’s also hard to understand how “plain packaging takes away choice from consumers.” Consumers generally buy products for their content, not for the packaging (unless it’s Tiffany!). Packaging may drive interest or demand for a particular product, but regulating packaging doesn’t actually prevent anyone from purchasing the product.

The author dismisses Australia’s ground-breaking plain packaging law as having produced “mixed, if not skeptical results.” She includes a link to an article reporting that cigarette sales actually increased in the wake of plain packaging.

It’s tough to expect objectivity from a Rupert Murdoch property whose first sentence begins “Labor’s nanny state push…” as the linked article does. What follows is a hack job full of misinformation and fallacies. It turns out the “increase” in cigarette sales was just 0.3%. The article then engages in numerical deception, comparing this figure to a 15.6% decrease—over the previous four years.

In fact, an “increase” in sales of 0.3%, when compared to Australia’s population growth of 1 to 2% in recent years, actually results in a per capita decline in sales. Furthermore, the linked article provides no information about changes in the sales of other tobacco products, such as cigars, snuff, or chew, even though the plain packaging law also applies to these. The article makes much of the fact that in the wake of the law, consumers have shifted to lower priced products, but this is precisely the effect prior research on plain packaging predicted.

Furthermore, upon closer examination, it appears the linked article, published in The Australian, is simply false. Stephen Koukoulas explains:

The figures from the ABS show that total consumption of tobacco and cigarettes in the March quarter 2014 is the lowest ever recorded – and this with the series starting in 1959… Making this record low consumption of tobacco all the more fantastic is that the fact that the consumption numbers are not adjusted for population growth which, by definition, means per capita consumption of tobacco and cigarettes is also at a record low.

Making a mockery of The Australian’s story is the fact that, in seasonally adjusted volume terms, consumption of tobacco is 5.3 per cent lower in the March quarter 2014 than in the December quarter 2012 when the plain packaging laws were introduced.

The Chamber’s blog post references the “theory… that plain packaging… can deter consumers from consuming ‘unhealthy’ products.” First, cigarettes are not “unhealthy,” in scare quotes, they are unhealthy, period. Second, this “theory” is backed up by dozens of peer-reviewed studies and controlled experiments. Here’s one open-access article published in Tobacco Control that anyone can read. The GIPC, like many intellectual property lobbies, probably isn’t interested in evidence-based policymaking, but it’s never too late to start.

By the way, businesses don’t really need government help in turning “grocery store shelves into an unnerving art gallery of morbid graphic images.” They’re doing a great job by themselves.

This post is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0, and may be shared and reposted with attribution. Please include a link back to this page, which will contain the most up-to-date version.


About Gabriel

Ph.D. in political science. Postdoc and resident fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project. Tech geek. Mechanically inclined. I study the politics of intellectual property.
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