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We Agree Tobacco is Harmful

Entry 1448, on 2012-10-11 at 20:24:34 (Rating 3, Politics)

Recently Australia introduced plain packaging laws for tobacco products and the same idea has been suggested for here in New Zealand. The tobacco companies must be quite alarmed by the situation because they have launched a massive TV and newspaper propaganda campaign against plain packaging.

The ads are designed to sound reasonable and to appeal to people's sense of fair play and freedom. Essentially they are saying something like "yeah sure tobacco causes health problems but people can make up their own minds over whether they use it or not."

The first line is always "We agree tobacco is harmful." That establishes the appeal to reason. The fact that tobacco companies denied the harm of tobacco for years has been conveniently forgotten. Then comes the next line which is something like: "We disagree with plain packaging because New Zealanders should be able to make their own informed decisions."

They do have a point. Most people would agree that we would prefer a society where we can make up our own minds about whether we accept the risks of using a harmful product because we might think the benefits outweigh the risks. Everything involves risk but the government doesn't apply the rules about suppressing risky behaviour evenly.

Many people die from road accidents but we still drive because the benefits outweigh the risks. The advantages of driving are obvious but what about a less clear cut case? What about alcohol use? Alcohol causes a huge amount of harm while providing few well defined benefits. Should there be much stronger actions taken against alcohol too?

And what about the "slippery slope", or "thin end of the wedge" arguments? If tobacco is restricted today what will be next? Maybe it will be alcohol (I don't like that idea, refer to the beer and wine sections of my web site!) or maybe driving (again, refer to the car section of my web site). Will they be next once a precedent is set for tobacco?

I think the problem here is the perception of this as being a black and white problem. It is true that everything has risks and benefits but it is the degree to which those good and bad aspects of something affect society that we should be looking at.

Many smokers don't want to smoke but they have suffered some degree of addiction. Is that really the free will that the tobacco companies speak of? And there is good evidence that those same companies have deliberately made their products more addictive in the past. So they make a product they accept is harmful but make it as difficult as possible for people to avoid that harm. Maybe they really are deserving of these harsh controls.

Another factor to consider is the type of control which is being suggested. Many people want to ban tobacco completely but the plain packaging laws fall far short of that. All they entail is using unattractive packaging (usually including graphic pictures of smoking related diseases). People can still buy these products, they just won't be exposed to the branding of the packages. It's difficult to see how this could be construed as unusually draconian. A large proportion of people would want to see it taken a lot further.

We all know that branding is a huge part of modern business. Some products are almost nothing but a brand. The most valuable brand in the world belongs to a company which surely makes the most mediocre product: Coca Cola. Another extremely valuable brand belongs to Apple. I would like to deny any major influence from that in all the Apple product purchases I make (I just bought a $1200 iPhone 5 last week) but it would be dishonest to suggest there isn't some element of it there.

The tobacco companies have spent a fortune on branding. Shouldn't they be allowed to maintain that "intellectual property"? Well no, I don't think so. They have a product they know is harmful and addictive. Why not spend some money on R&D making it less harmful and addictive instead of on propaganda (that's all marketing and branding really is)? Maybe if they can produce a product like that they could gain an exemption from the packaging and advertising laws which control tobacco now.

That seems like a far more positive approach to me.


Comment 1 (3349) by SBFL on 2012-10-13 at 13:32:55:

You spent $1200 on an iPhone 5? Oh dear, you must be one of those "rich pricks" Michael Cullen spoke of.


Comment 2 (3351) by OJB on 2012-10-13 at 16:54:09:

That's the price for any phone with these capabilities. The most expensive Android and Windows phones are a similar price, sometimes more. And this is a professional expense I have every two years. I support iPhones at work so I need a model capable of the latest functions. I really don't think that makes me a "rich prick", not after buying the phone anyway!


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