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Cigarettes and Alcohol - Tell It How It Is

Updated on August 28, 2011

Why I was asked

I am an author around the legal aspects of Packaging and Labelling. Apart from my book "Guide to Packaging and Labelling Law 2011" available from I also write for trade publications whenever possible.So I am very happy to find myself on lists relating to the industry.

I received a survey because of my involvement in the industry.

"Dear Charles,

I am writing a vox pop news story about the use of plain packaging on cigarettes. I was wondering if you would feel poised to answer a couple of questions on the matter, given your standing in the packaging industry.

The letter came from a reporter on "Packaging Professional", the magazine produced by the Packaging Society, part of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining.
1. Do you think that plain cigarette packaging will have any impact on the number of people who smoke?

2. What are the long-term implications of the government's move towards plain cigarette packaging?
3. If it were implemented, what do you think this legislation would mean for the packaging industry?
4. In your opinion, has cigarette packaging been used to "trick" or "deceive" youngsters into smoking in the past?
5. Will this set a precedenf for more restrictions on other types of packaging? If the rationale is that cigarettes are dangerous, shouldn't other potentially harmful products also have plain packaging?
6. If we go down this route, isn't there a danger thaty we could end upin a future where all products that could be interpreted as dangerous come in plain packaging?"

My response

"There is no doubt now that cigarettes damage health and cause death, and the death is long and unpleasant. And the cigarette companies denied this for years, knowing themselves to be lying and concealing the truth.
Given the nature of their product, which kills their customers, they have to keep recruiting new customers.
For any intelligent government the question is whether to ban tobacco entirely, or try to discourage its use. The Prohibition exercise in the USA did not work, so governments now try to discourage use. Plain packets are part of the process. So is the prevention of cigarette advertising so far as possible.

The implications for the packaging industry are frankly unimportant - you would not promote paedophilia so you could wrap the kids in plastic wrappers.
Anyone making packaging for cigarettes should (1) consider diversifying and (2) examine their consciences.

The logic of putting other substances in plain wrapping and controlling their sale is also strong. How dare industry create alcopops to get kids into drinking alcohol? And the supermarkets compete to sell alcopops and cider as cheap as they can. Does no-one have any shame?

Charles James
You may publish any of this."

A Serious Question

An astute reader will recognise that the reporter asked more than two questions, and that I did not answer most of them. I said what had to be said. Fortunately I am not risking that my company will not be asked to devise advertising or packaging for a tobacco company. If there was any possibility of this I would have had to bite my tongue and give bland answers.

There is a genuine question about civil liberties and individual freedom. To what extent should the government interfere in the actions of adult citizens and juvenile citizens? If people are prepared to pay to see an overweight middle aged naked man dancing on tables, should the law prohibit that? Where does one draw the line? The filming of "Lord of the Flies" , if done at all, had to be done with naked boys. but it is hard to think of any other film where naked children have been permitted.

The State regulates alcohol and cigarette use in virtually every country. There is an uneasy trade off between individual liberty, public health, and taxation revenue. As the health risks and their attendant expenses have become more recognised the balance has shifted in favour of public health.

There is also the liberty of manufacturers and shopkeepers. I know many shopkeepers and restaurant owners who simply refuse to stock alcohol because it is religiously wrong. Some restaurants allow customers to bring in their own booze, and some of course sell alcohol as part of a full service to customers. Each individual makes their own decisions and has a different trade off point.

The cigarette businesses were big and well established before there was any suggestion that cigarettes were bad for you. They have duties to shareholders and stakeholders like their employees, which they balance against their duty to society. Most of them give the impression that they will go as far as they legally can to make profit, putting the onus on government to regulate as it wishes. And of course they employ lawyers and lobbyists to protect their activities.

Drink has always been known to be both pleasant and potentially harmful. The Prohibition experiment in the United States did not work, and the governments recognise alcohol duties as a source of income. The trade off point with alcohol is different to that for cigarettes, but there are tensions. Industry has developed a range of alcopops, sweet tasting alcohol drinks, which are attractive to children. Although by law they cannot advertise directly to children. everyone knows this is the market they are after. Where is morality here?

I have given alcohol to my children, as part of teaching them to use alcohol responsibly. I am deeply concerned about the relentless pushing of cheap alcohol, which is only done because there is profit in it. There is a point at which the indiviual decency of the supermarket owners and managers has to be replaced by legislation. That time is now.


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