[Editor’s note: In May of this year plain packaging laws came into force in the UK, Ireland, and France. Tobacco products are now required to be sold in plain, standardized packaging, following the lead of Australia, which implemented the measure in December 2012. This November, the World Trade Organization will rule on whether plain packaging contravenes agreements to protect intellectual property.]
Since Australia introduced plain packaging on tobacco products in 2012, there have been several debates as to its effectiveness on preventing smoking, its contribution towards the black market and whether implementing these measures could lead to a domino effect on other products deemed to be unhealthy.
Alcohol, junk food, and sugary sweets have been pinpointed as prime candidates for stronger regulatory controls by the World Health Organization (WHO). Most recently, we have seen calls for toys to be sold in plain packaging because some believe that they encourage negative stereotypes of what males and females should be.
Imposing plain packaging and tighter regulations on alcohol, fizzy drinks and fast food is a step too far in terms of government intervention. Do we really need this high level of handholding? Implementing measures such as a sugar tax on food are an infringement on consumer freedoms. Consumers should be allowed to eat, drink, and smoke if they wish to, without being taxed for doing something they enjoy if they are not directly harming others by doing so.
Consumer freedoms aside, there is no evidence to suggest that a sugar tax or plain packaging on alcohol would have any real effect on the prevention of consumers buying these products. Every day there are new health warnings about the dangers and risks of eating certain foods and binge drinking, yet people still continue to dine at fast food chains, eat convenience foods and drink heavily at the weekends. It is human nature to want to enjoy the indulgent things in life, and government intervention is unlikely to be warmly welcomed.
The Ontario Medical Association have already begun designing plain packaging for food products, including pizza. The proposed plain packaged pizza box displays a gruesome picture of a diseased liver, next to the message, “Excess consumption of this product contributes to obesity and resulting non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.” To put this message on a pizza box is downright ridiculous. Most people are well aware that pizza is not the most nutritious of foods, and generally view it as an occasional treat. This proposed action is an insult to intelligence.
Just like dedicated smokers choose to ignore the grotesque images of blackened lungs plastered on cigarette packets and continue to smoke, a picture of a diseased liver on the top of a pizza box is not going to put one off their cherished Friday night takeaway after a long working week.
A better step forward would be to educate youth and adults alike on the contents of food and alcohol, rather than using scare tactics like putting images of decrepit organs on packaging, to deter them from consuming certain products. Enabling people to make informed decisions about whether they should indulge would be better in the long run, and would be a more sustainable and long-term solution towards improving public health.
Jan Fischer is the former prime minister of the Czech Republic and president of the European Council.