My e-mail inbox exploded. Mostly with pictures of Hitler, I have to say. People were very hostile to that sort of idea. So, although the nudge agenda, I think, does have possibilities I think care has to be taken that people don't feel that it's the nanny state, indeed the nanny state squared.
Of all the silly things Chapman has been saying recently, there has been one statement of such glorious idiocy that it almost turns full circle and becomes a sort of genius. In response to a report saying that 16% of tobacco in Australia is smuggled/counterfeit, Chapman says, with sarcastic self-satisfaction:
So while one in six smokers apparently know where they can repeatedly buy illegal tobacco, strangely, with more than a billion dollars supposedly being lost, the gormless Federal Police with all their intelligence and resources and impressive history of major smuggling busts cannot find any of these same retail outlets and prosecute.
It's a measure of Chapman's immense talent that he can solve the centuries old problem of smuggling in one throwaway sentence, but this is a true Eureka moment, is it not? If the public can get hold of illicit substances, so can the authorities. Like all the best ideas, the beauty lies in its simplicity. All the police have to do is go undercover, find out where people are getting illicit goods and then find out who supplied them to them, and so on until you get to the top of the chain. Then make a few arrests and—ta-da!—the problem is solved. If only the DEA and the FBI had thought of this 100 years ago, we could have made a success of Prohibition and the War on Drugs. I look forward to reading this guy's next webitorial when he will solve the Palestinian problem and the common cold.
But Chapman's real interest is the plain packaging ruse and the tobacco industry's response to it. It was widely reported by the piss-poor Australian press that BAT are planning to "flood Australia with cheap tobacco". In reality, the industry couldn't do such a thing even if it wanted to—well over 70% of the retail price is tax—and nor has it ever threatened to. What BAT did say was that higher prices and plain packaging encouraged illicit trade, and that the display ban and plain packaging meant that cigarette companies could only compete on price. Both of these statements are fairly obviously true and the effect of both is to encourage smokers to buy cheaper cigarettes. Since cigarette consumption is affected by price—although not as much as most products—this is an instance of alleged health campaigners shooting themselves in the foot. Lower prices mean more smokers, as they frequently say themselves.
This is not very complex economics and it is very different to BAT threatening to "flood Australia with cheap tobacco". Of course, boosting illicit trade is not the only reason the tobacco industry doesn't like plain packaging. The big companies, in particular, want to protect their brands. BAT have made this very clear by threatening to sue the Australian government for taking away their intellectual property. However, since most people don't care about their intellectual property, the industry has focused more on the illicit trade angle when arguing against plain packaging.
In the simple-minded world inhabited by the likes of Simon Chapman, the very fact that the industry opposes plain packaging is reason enough to go push ahead with it.
It’s now very plain the global tobacco industry sees the move as arguably the greatest single threat it has ever faced, and is spending millions to say that — really, honestly — plain packs just won’t work and will cause chaos throughout the economy.
I’ve done many interviews on this in the past year and even normally sceptical radio hosts quickly make the point that ordinary Australians are asking “well, if it won’t work, why are they so concerned and spending all this money?”
Far be it from me to question the intellect of radio hosts, let alone "ordinary Australians", but this line of enquiry rests on the assumption that the industry opposes plain packaging for the same reason the antis support it—because they believe it will bring down the smoking rate. But a few paragraphs later, Chapman shows that this isn't actually the case.
A leaked BAT internal training DVD from 2002 explains much about the industry’s real fears in plain packaging.
Profitability in the tobacco industry today rests largely on high-priced premium brands, which are able to attract higher retail prices purely on the strength of branding and pack image. If all packs will look the same, many smokers will wonder why they should shell out far more for a pack that looks the same as every other brand except for brand name and that internal tobacco industry research shows cannot be distinguished from cheaper brands in blinded smoking experiments. The illusion that premium brands are “better” will evaporate, and much profitability with it.
If this "leaked DVD" had revealed that the industry believed that the packaging of cigarettes leads nonsmokers to take up the habit, there might be a story here. In fact, what they say in private seems to be much the same as what they say in public. They're trying to protect their premium brands, and why not?
If smokers lose interest in the premium brands, they will smoke cheaper cigarettes. And if cheaper cigarettes lead to more smoking, plain packaging will lead, by way of unintended consequences, to more smoking. This is what the industry has been saying, and campaigners have scoffed, but Chapman now accepts this:
If smokers were to drift down to lower-priced brands, smoking rates could well rise, particularly among low-income groups and kids who are most price responsive.
Great success! A new problem is thus created for which Chapman has a predictably bone-headed solution:
The government could easily restore the price by increasing excise duty by 20% overnight as it did in April 2010 when first announcing plain packs and the tax rise
This, in turn, would lead to a further incentive to smugglers, although that doesn't bother Chapman because he doesn't believe smugglers exist. And so the cycle keeps on going. As one policy leads to a cock-up in one direction, a sticking plaster is applied that exacerbates the problem in another direction. What a shower they are.
Simon Chapman used to be the editor of Tobacco Control. Explains a lot, that.