Why libertarians can't agree on plain-pack ciggies

Clashing concepts of personal and corporate freedom have MPs at loggerheads… but Tony Abbott has, in fact, cast his vote on the packaging question long ago.

If there is one thing the recent debate over the plain packaging of cigarettes has achieved, it is to highlight the confused notions of ‘liberty’ involved in arguing for or against tobacco control.

On the one hand, right-libertarian elements have argued that a legal product such as tobacco should not be targeted with ‘nanny state’ restrictions.

Liberal MP George Christensen recently told parliament, for instance, that “ultimately, the individual is responsible for their own actions. That is why, when the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government legislated plain packaging for cigarettes, I spoke against that bill. I did not believe then and I do not believe now that inch by inch encroachment into our personal lives is what our society should be about...”

You can’t fault Christensen’s bravery. The tenor of his assertions is sharply at odds with public opinion and the views of many of his Coalition colleagues on this issue. His determination to speak his mind, therefore, is to be commended. Without dissenting voices, democracy is weaker.

On the other hand, Labor MP Melissa Parke told parliament last December: “I note that the UK government is about to follow in our plain-packaging footsteps and yet a member of the government has expressed the view that smoking and the sale of tobacco should really be left as a matter of individual freedom and individual responsibility.

“To hold that kind of view you would have to ignore altogether the vast inequitable disparity that exists, on the one hand between a multi-billion-dollar corporation with all the advertising resources and techniques at its disposal in its effort to push an addictive product on young people, and on the other hand a teenage boy or girl who, if they succumb to that manipulation, will likely have their life significantly shortened.”

Although ‘liberty’ is most often framed as the little guy versus the state, Parke’s left-libertarian argument is that liberty is threatened not only by collective action expressed through an elected government, but also through the collective action of large corporations – in this case the global tobacco companies.

There are parallels in the protections offered to consumers against the actions of other large, well-resourced companies peddling dangerous goods.

The Abbott government’s see-sawing on the Future of Financial Advice reforms, for instance, reflects differing opinions on how ‘free’ we should be to buy financial products sold by people receiving ‘conflicted remuneration’.

The loosening of Labor’s reforms appealed to right-libertarian voices within the Coalition, but was always going to be a tough sell to a voting public in which thousands of people lost retirement wealth during the GFC because of the actions of unscrupulous financial advisers.

But back to ciggies, which one can now only purchase in ugly olive-green packs covered in health warnings and graphic images of the health nasties smoking can cause (the latter being a Howard government reform).

The hope of right-libertarians – that Abbott might think about repealing the plain-packaging laws – now appears to have been grossly misplaced.

Those who saw views such as Christensen’s as an ember that could be fanned back into a reforming fire of outrage were wrong. The plain packaging law is just not going to be over-turned by a party led by former health minister Abbott.

Any doubts about this can be pretty well laid to rest by revisiting Abbott’s strong position on tobacco control in 2005.

As Health Minister, Abbott told parliament at the time: “Smoking is one of the greatest avoidable causes of early death and chronic disease. This government has already spent some $24 million on anti-smoking campaigns. We will shortly be introducing graphic health warnings on cigarette packets.

“Thanks to the good work of health educators, supported by government policy, Australia’s smoking rate has fallen from 22 per cent in 1998 to just 17 per cent today. It is the lowest on record and it is one of the lowest in the world.

“But it is still too high, especially amongst young people. About one-third of 16- to 17-year-olds smoke. I am afraid to say that about half of those people who begin to smoke during adolescence will ultimately die of a smoking related disease.”

It is the young that the plain packaging law was supposed to dissuade from ever taking up the habit.

In the past two weeks a University of Zurich study funded by Philip Morris was used to argue that plain packaging was failing to deter smoking in young age groups, and may have the perverse effect of increasing smoking overall.

However, Treasury data published in newspapers yesterday showed that latter assertion was untrue – in fact, a large excise increase last year has caused the volumes of tobacco smoked to fall so sharply that it has probably masked any plain-packaging effect.

Restrictions on tobacco advertising that started with TV and radio bans in 1975 and finished with the outlawing of the last vestiges of tobacco sponsorships for ‘international events’ in Australia 1997, did much to give young people the ‘liberty’ to grow up unmolested by marketing messages that made the product ‘cool’.

Plain packaging has, most likely, made smoking less cool again in the eyes of young people, though it will be some years, if at all, before a definitive effect of the law will be discernable. It’s the lack of definitive evidence either way that has allowed British conservative PM David Cameron to backflip on the issue and say he will follow Australia’s lead.

If he does so, committed youngsters in both the UK and Australia can still buy empty branded packets from abroad online, quite legally, and stuff them full of over-the-counter cigarettes. Such freedoms really are a wonderful thing.

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