Turkey recently became the latest in a slew of countries to adopt mandatory plain packaging rules for cigarettes.
This tobacco control measure bans the use of brands or logos on cigarette cartons to supposedly reduce their attractiveness, in an attempt to deter smoking.
The United Nations World Health Organization has backed this move, but such policies ignore overwhelming evidence from around the globe showing that plain packaging laws not only set a terrible precedent by undermining intellectual property rights, but have also failed abysmally at reducing smoking.
Australia became the first nation to pass plain packaging laws in late 2012. In the four years that followed, the country saw no significant decline in smoking rates, even though rates had been declining in the years prior to plain packaging, and despite a whopping 12.5 percent hike to tobacco taxes in 2013.
Unfortunately, the policy did produce one set of winners—sellers of cheap and illicit tobacco.
The Australian Association of Convenience Stores reported that customers, unable to differentiate between cigarette brands, now resort to asking for the “cheapest smokes” available, with a substantial increase in the market share of these products. Ironically, many smokers ended up paying less to support their habit than before.
Meanwhile, the Australian tobacco black market has grown into a $15 billion industry, forcing the government to invest over $70 million in a black market task force trying to recoup lost tax revenue and deter the criminal syndicates behind the problem—syndicates who are known funders of terrorism and human trafficking.
A similar story has played out in the United Kingdom and France, both of which introduced plain packaging in 2017. Data published by the French Observatory for Drugs and Addiction found that tobacco sales actually went up by 1.3 percent within six months of plain packaging. This forced the French health minister, Agnes Buzyn, to admit that the policy was not stopping people from smoking.
In the U.K., the Smoking Toolkit Study found that on a three-month rolling average, between December 2017 and March 2018, smoking rates in England had risen since the same period the previous year, which was before plain packaging was fully adopted.
These findings are cause for concern, given just how bad plain packaging laws are for intellectual property rights. They deprive legal enterprises of the branding they’ve developed over decades. Worse yet, they set a precedent for government regulation of other industries and products.
Recently, the World Trade Organization upheld Australia’s plain packaging law, dismissing concerns that it violated intellectual property rights protected in international law. The World Trade Organization justified its decision on grounds of “promoting public health.” An appeal is currently underway.
That decision has already prompted public health bureaucrats and nanny-state advocates to call for plain packaging on a host of other products: alcohol, sugary treats, and even fast food, conjuring up awful scenes of 1984-style blank cartons lining supermarket shelves.
If these heavy regulations went into effect, Brand Finance estimates a $250 billion loss for the global beverage industry alone, which would damage the global economy and destroy countless jobs in the process.
Intellectual property rights are inalienable human rights recognized under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are also a substantial component of today’s global economy. Countries that offer strong intellectual property protections benefit from the incentive to innovate and from greater confidence among investors.
For consumers, trademarks and branding promote informed choice by signaling particular quality standards or experiences we can expect. Censoring intellectual property through plain packaging undermines consumer’s basic freedom to choose as we are forced to differentiate between generic-looking products.
Intellectual property-intensive products in the United States and European Union alone make up 18.5 percent of the world’s total gross domestic product, with 88 million workers dependent upon trademark-intensive industries for their livelihoods.
The World Health Organization ought to be safeguarding these rights and advancing proven, evidence-based strategies for tobacco control, such as encouraging smokers to transition to safer alternative nicotine delivery products like vapes. But instead, the World Health Organization is pressuring governments to adopt plain packaging.
In 2017, for instance, World Health Organization officials lobbied the nation of Georgia to adopt plain packaging laws, saying it would aid its integration into the EU—even though plain packaging has nothing to do with joining a regional alliance. Georgia is eager to join the EU, as it stands on Russia’s doorstep and is 20 percent occupied by Russia.
Sadly, such incompetence seems to be par for the course for the World Health Organization, which has made headlines for flying its officials on exorbitant first-class international trips and appointing the likes of Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador, a decision that was only rescinded after overwhelming international condemnation.
The world’s taxpayers, who continue to foot its bills, deserve a far better deal than this.