Yesterday, the Australian Federal Government announced that by July 2012, all packages of cigarettes sold within the country must be devoid of any logos, branding images and colors. In addition, an increased tax of 25% will raise the cost of a package of 30 cigarettes by roughly $2 USD. A packaging mockup for cigarettes sold in Australia is pictured at right.
Obviously, the tobacco industry is not happy. Without branded packaging, it will be far more difficult for consumers to differentiate between brands and types of cigarettes. For example, when I look at a rack of cigarettes in a store, I know that the Marlboro cigarettes with gold are Marlboro Lights, I know that the ones with red are Marlboro Reds, the greens are menthol and so forth. Most of us can tell pretty quickly the difference between Camels, Parliaments, Newports and the rest, but a rack full of cigarettes that all look essentially the same would be dizzying, and would diminish brand loyalty. (Disclaimer: I started smoking at age 17. I quit seven years ago.) This is all on top of Australia’s existing limitations on tobacco advertising, which are pretty harsh. For example, according to tobaccoinaustralia.org, absolutely no international or sporting events in Australia have been allowed to carry tobacco sponsorship since October 2006. For my part, I cannot begin to imagine what a NASCAR racetrack would look like without cigarette advertising, but that is the case in Australia. With this latest measure, then, the government is essentially amputating the last limb of tobacco advertising in Australia (not counting arguably more discreet promotions, such as stars smoking in movies).
Let’s consider what would happen if this measure were taken in the United States. The backlash from the tobacco industry would be harsh, especially in an economic downturn. I imagine we would hear opponents talking about how our country is rooted in a culture of tobacco, beginning with settlers in Jamestown and Plymouth. The “babysitter” argument would also be made, where people bemoan their government for trying to make choices for them about their personal health and lifestyle. Further, just as the New York City subway ads against sugary beverages and smoking have been called overly graphic, there would be those who complain that the federally mandated packaging is just gross and they shouldn’t have to look at closeups of cancer-ridden lungs while they pay for their groceries.
But there would also be people like me, who would claim that education is the key, and that if the number of smokers continues to rise, then our current programs aren’t working. I do not think we will live in a world where tobacco is fully banned; we will always have smokers. We can, and should, take other measures which restrict tobacco advertising, particularly to people who are underage. However, from a media literacy perspective, I fear that Australia is going too far. I think it is more valuable for us to have branding and be taught to make our own decisions as consumers, just as it is my responsibility to learn how to read a nutrition label. While I am glad that I can go into any bar or restaurant in New York City and know that I won’t be faced with second-hand smoke, I do think that this is a decision best made by the independent establishments. Then it’s up to me to choose which of those places I want to patronize. People smoking around me does impact my health, but the presence of branded cigarettes behind a counter does not. Taking them away removes my responsibility to make my own informed decisions, begins to smack of censorship, and frankly makes the world a little too baby-proofed for me.