Is plain packaging worth it? ― Jeffrey Baxley

MARCH 23 ― A few weeks after Malaysia first announced it would be following in the steps of Australia, Ireland, Britain, and France by implementing plain packaging requirements for cigarette packs, the Health Ministry seems to be walking back on the measure. Speaking on March 8th, Health Minister Datuk Seri Subramaniam Sathasivam announced the government had not yet determined whether to institute the policy, saying instead that discussions are still ongoing. The government is right to bide its time before moving forward with such a divisive measure.

While public health groups claim plain packaging is an effective way to reduce smoking (pointing to Australia as their chief example), tobacco companies point out that it makes the counterfeiting of cigarettes easier. Skeptics of the proposed rules, meanwhile, argue that it impedes the right of democratic citizens to freely buy and use a legal product. All the while, the purported evidence of falling smoking rates as a result of the packaging rules remains unconvincing.

The plain packaging debate, which has sprung up rather suddenly here since the prospect of following these other countries’ lead was first discussed seriously last year, has thrust Malaysia into the midst of a global debate whose outcome and whose ramifications are not yet clear. For anti-smoking campaigners abroad, the “domino effect” of Australia’s policy overseas likely seems a good way to vindicate their own efforts and stifle arguments over intellectual property, consumer choice, and efficacy. Mike Daube, spokesman for the Public Health Association of Australia, referred to this as the “leapfrog effect” in a recent interview with Aljazeera: “What we are now seeing, and this often happens in public health, is that once one country successfully implements change, other countries follow. There is a leapfrog effect. It’s going to be tough, because the industry is desperate for new markets, but I think we will see plain packaging in many more countries over the next decade.”

That response, however, assumes that the plain packaging experiment was successful. If so, why did Australia’s own examination of the policy find that three quarters of the smoking drop stemmed from tax increases and not packaging changes? It is also worth noting that the countries that have followed Australia to date — particularly Ireland and Britain — share very similar cultures and general attitudes toward smoking. Is there any guarantee that a policy designed for the British or Australian public could be copied and slapped wholesale onto the very different Malaysian context? Instead of taking the arguments made by Australian health activists as gospel, Malaysia’s government should conduct its own analysis before importing new laws from abroad.

Aside from whether plain packaging would actually reduce smoking on its own, another major issue with the policy (particularly with Malaysia) is the impact it would have on the already booming illegal cigarette market. As Japan Tobacco International (JTI) pointed out to the Malay Mail Online, Malaysia’s market is already awash in illegal tobacco: more than 40 per cent of cigarettes in the country are from the black market. Not that industry sources are to be trusted implicitly, but even police sources can attest that the country is awash in illegal smokes, making it one of Asia’s main contraband hubs. Since the special Ops Outlet police brigade was launched in 2010 to crack down on illegal cigarettes, more than 1.43 billion sticks have been seized.

Illicit cigarettes, which do not result in any tax revenue for the state, cost Malaysia’s treasury RM2 billion a year. Australia, whose combination of easily replicated plain packages and high cigarette taxes makes the market highly lucrative for smugglers and counterfeiters, is continually making record busts of illegal cigarettes while countless more make their way to consumers.

At the end of the day, however, what truly makes the plain packaging issue important in a democratic society is not the intellectual property of the tobacco companies but our ability as informed, consenting adults to purchase a product. Why is the government forcing a policy whose actual net benefits are doubtful (after factoring in the booming black market), violating our rights as consumers out of a self-conferred duty to protect our health? “Big Tobacco” may well make for a convenient bogeyman, certainly. Once the authorities have succeeded in dictating how tobacco companies package their products, however, can we honestly expect them not to use that power when dealing with other industries they do not like? The tobacco industry has already been specifically singled out for exclusion under the terms of the new Trans-Pacific Partnership. As a result, these corporations cannot use the investor-state dispute systems (ISDS) available to other companies to protect their copyrights and intellectual property. In future, will it be junk food, alcohol, and even video games that become the next targets? Asean’s Intellectual Property Association (IPA) has already decried the proposal as “regressive” because of the precedent it sets for other consumer products.

If Putrajaya wants to explore the ramifications and potential benefits of plain packaging, that is their prerogative. However, before passing a law based solely on an international trend, the government should take the time to carefully study whether the much-touted public health measure actually makes the public healthier. Of course, the government’s general attitude toward anti-smoking measures has trended toward the immediate and the overdone, such as the overnight 40 per cent jump in cigarette taxes last November. While all this is going on, consumers and voters should ask themselves whether the potential benefits are worth the risks of creeping government overreach.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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