Opinion: Australian tobacco packaging laws misguided

Story highlights

  • Brands are major drivers of economic growth, says Stephen Cheliotis
  • By making packaging a doddle to copy it gives rise to counterfeit cigarettes, he says
  • Cheliotis: "Removing the ability to identify one product from another is a state gone too far"

I've never profited from branding cigarettes, but the decision by the Australian government to pass a law removing brand colors and logos from packaging concerns me.

Good intentions almost always lead to unintended consequences; banned songs enjoy a boost as consumers clamor to rebel or see what the fuss is about, and what about prohibition? Will the lack of a red triangle really be less glamorous to the young than packaging shouting: "'This product is scandalous!' to 'authorities?'"

And where does it end? What about alcohol, fatty foods, sugary drinks, and sweets? Should they all be sold in plain packaging or unbranded? It's a slippery slope to a nanny state, where consumer choice is curtailed and businesses restricted.

Brands are major drivers of economic growth, and without them a company's incentive to innovate is removed. Why have the best or safest product if no one can distinguish you from the rest?

Stephen Cheliotis is Chief Executive of The Centre for Brand Analysis (TCBA)

Equally, why spend on corporate social responsibility (CSR)? Brands empower and enable consumers to select those companies they approve of. The environmental policy of a company or how they treat their employees influences my decision to buy a given branded product. Without the brand, however, that power is removed and, by default, the business's interest in CSR. The business's fear factor and liability is reduced substantially.

Furthermore, trust is important to brands and they have to be careful not to breach that trust or consumers will vote accordingly, with their wallets, as they decide the source of a given product is no longer reliable or safe.

Obviously tobacco kills, but at least known brands have to uphold certain standards (for example the amount of nicotine contained in each cigarette) so consumers' trust can be retained. According to the BBC in January, counterfeit cigarettes being sold in Sussex contained abnormally high levels of cancer-causing chemicals. There are many similar stories, including the UK's City of Stoke County Council highlighting that "people should be aware that fake tobacco is even more hazardous than the real thing."

By making packaging a doddle to copy it gives rise to counterfeit cigarettes, even more dangerous and cheaper than genuine brands, making it easier in the process for young people to start and continue their habit.

We can assume that smokers in Australia generally understand the health consequences of smoking, so they are making an informed choice. Why not allow them to choose which manufacturers they buy from too, rather than potentially opening the floodgates to criminal products and non-liable sellers?

Cigarette companies in Australia and elsewhere are restricted in their marketing, so are building hardly any new brand value and awareness. I cannot imagine building a new brand or reaching new audiences without undertaking marketing, so these brands are simply identifiers and guarantors of, at the very least, a certain standard of cigarette or tobacco. Those with any real brand value have so principally amongst older smokers, who remember the past marketing; do younger audiences recall the Marlboro man and pick that brand because of that campaign? Not likely.

By all means ban smoking in public places and create slow cultural change, but removing the ability to identify one product from another and trashing intellectual property rights is a state gone too far.

Cigarettes are damaging, but restricting a legal business and consumer's freedom and choice of legal products is a dangerous precedent. If they are that bad make them illegal! Otherwise, if this law is upheld, expect debates about other legal categories and products in due course and a future of identikit products, in identikit packaging from less accountable businesses (or in many cases illegal ones).

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