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Plain packaging failure

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Amanda is in a rush and running low on fuel.  She pulls into a servo showing a good price on its billboard, and stops at a pump offering the fuel she wants.  None of that ethanol crap for her.

After filling up she dashes into the store, grabs her favourite drink from the fridge and a two‑for‑one Cherry Ripe deal advertised on the counter.  She’s making good time.  After getting a pack of low tar Winnie Blues she’ll be on her way in no time.

She asks for her ciggies, so the attendant opens a draw full of cigarettes and pulls out one pack, then another.  “No that’s a Horizon…  Nup, that’s a Long Beach.”  He rummages through some more: “Ok, Winfield.”


Amanda grimaces at the clock on the wall as the attendant flicks through the packs, squints his eyes, and mumbles under his breath: “Winfield Menthol, Winfield Optimal Sky, Winfield Gold, Winfield Silver, Winfield Red, Winfield White, here were are, Winfield Blue!”  He hands over the Winnie Blues, in the same olive green pack and with the same small font as all the other packs.

Amanda forces a smile for the attendant, pays with a quick tap of her card and turns in a rage.  She’s late. 

As she gets in her car and slams the car door, Amanda thinks that it’s the little things in life that make a day crap.

Once again, the rule requiring olive green cigarette packs and a uniform font has saved no one, but has added a little angst to the world.

Meanwhile, Wendy has a worried look on her face as she sits in Richard’s office in the Department of Health in Canberra.  She’s preparing a presentation for her next junket to an international tobacco control conference.  Normally she’d just dust off last year’s presentation asserting that plain packaging cuts smoking.  But there’s the pesky issue of evidence, and her conscience is uncharacteristically getting the better of her.

“I don’t think plain packaging works,” she admits to Richard with a grimace.  Such direct and contrary speaking is out of place anywhere in the public service, but particularly here.  Taken aback, Richard stores this outburst in his memory, for recall during the next promotion round.  Wendy continues in a stutter: “Plain packaging started in December 2012, but in the three years since smoking rates only fell from 13 per cent to 12 per cent.”


“A fall!” exclaims Richard with delight.

“Yes, technically, but smoking was actually falling faster before plain packaging, and has fallen more in other developed countries without plain packaging. Except for France, where it rose after they introduced plain packaging” Wendy says, as she sees her career drift away with every word.  Richard’s eyebrows are getting higher and higher.

Wendy doubles down and says “We spent $3 million on a study that showed smoking rates didn’t even change in the first year of plain packaging, and that a small reduction in smoking only occurred later, after we started ramping up tobacco taxes by 12.5 per cent each September.”

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is a former Senator for the Liberal Democrats.

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