Has Plain Packaging Reduced Tobacco Consumption?

In 2012, the Australian government instituted a plan tobacco packing requirement—that is, a generic package that removes all stylistic aspects of packaging: colors, imagery, corporate logos, and trademarks. In addition to legally required warnings, the only brand specific-print on the package allowed is the brand name in a mandated font size. The purpose of the Soviet-style packaging is to help reduce tobacco consumption by neutralizing any advertising technique used by the companies to woo costumers who’d otherwise avoid tobacco products. Unfortunately, it seems that plain packaging has failed to reduce tobacco use in Australia and might have even slowed the reduction that was already underway.

In the year following implementation of the plain packaging requirement, reports began to surface that Aussies purchased more cigarettes—59 million more—than in the previous year. Of course, others claimed that those numbers were wrong and that tobacco consumption had fallen post-plain packaging.

Christopher Snowdon recently shed light on how the interventionist policies are actually affecting consumer behavior. As he explains, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ sales figures don’t show how many cigarettes were sold or how many people were smoking, but they do show the trend in (legal) tobacco sales. There was a long-term decline over the last few decades, which appears to have slowed in the first year of plain packaging. As for those claiming that plain packaging worked, Snowdon says this:

The rearguard defence of plain packaging, led by The Kouk, relies on the focusing on the first quarter's sales figures for 2014 which show a dip in chain volume to $3,405 million. This is almost certainly the result of a major tax hike in December 2013 of 12.5 per cent, but The Kouk and others have deluded themselves into thinking that it somehow represents the delayed effect of plain packaging.

In a follow up post, Snowdon notes:

The truth is that tobacco sales fall to record lows in most Western countries every three months because smoking has been going out of fashion for decades. [T]his downward trend went into reverse in Australia when plain packaging first came in and it only resumed when the government hiked up the price of cigarettes with a tax rise of 12.5% in December 2013 and another tax rise of 12.5% in September 2014.

He compared Australian tobacco use rates to a similar country, Britain, which has also increased tobacco taxes (less than Australia), has advertising bans, and awareness programs similar to Australia, but does not have plain packaging and found that “the fall in tobacco sales in Britain since Australia brought in plain packaging has been twice as steep as the fall seen in Australia.”

The bottom line is that consumer behavior is complex and government policies that aim to nudge us into making “better” decisions may not work as advertised.