Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Rack off tobacco companies

Australians will ban all colour and branding from cigarette packaging and replace it with pictures of gangrened feet, amongst other things!

Here, we just recently put our swanky cigarette boxes out of view and without much fuss but the Australian plan is generating a lot of opposition, most of which is coming from obvious vested interests.

Tobacco companies' are proven masters when it comes to the dark art of persuasion and have always managed to wriggle their way around advertising restriction policies as they met them; the advertising of Dunhill "aftershave" is a clear example of their smooth cross-product branding acrobatics. This new government policy, which bans the use of colour, brand, and identity, is the ultimate way of curbing their influence. To my mind, blank packaging is defensible and seems fair. In addition the government could provide clear information on the risks associated with smoking to help inform consumers. This would be useful and honest, unlike what is being planned here.

Do the Australian government really know the probability of developing trenchfoot from smoking? Assuming they do, then they must know its not very high (given the few limbless smokers you see or hear about). So what we're dealing with here is actually a message that is inherently disingenuous. That's not good... nor is spreading such a message, with the intension of manipulating behaviour, in a realm that works by bypassing reason! are we really ok with this?

I'm pretty sure this is what used to call propaganda.


Gerard O'Neill said...

First they came for the smokers...

I'm no fan of smoking nor tobacco companies, but really: when the state starts spinning the facts to make some people change their behaviour, how long before they dispense with the need for facts at all?

Is it me or is the gentle nudge of libertarian paternalism morphing into an iron fist of the more illiberal kind?

Mark McG said...

Why what's the worst that could happen, people actually stop smoking? I don't have any problem with propaganda against tobacco companies. You’ve already made the point that they used every trick in the book themselves to manipulate the way people make choices, so much so that it was deemed necessary to prevent it by banning advertising.

Peter Carney said...

Mark: this is precisely the attitude that I find worrying. We should expect more honesty and transparency from public policy than we might from the tobacco industry!

To be clear: my view is that preventing tobacco companies from manipulating peoples' choices is reasonably defensible and can be effected by mandating blank packaging. Government polices of propaganda are not. Why not present the genuine evidence of risk and consequence rather than engage in base and disingenuous manipulation?

I'm no constitutional lawyer but I would suspect (and hope) that such a policy is, and would remain, unlawful here.

Dave said...

"A boy who cried wolf" outcome would be pretty bad. If a public health message were "inherently disingenuous" it would seriously undermine the credibility of the public health office and babies would be thrown out with
But it is not "inherantly disingenuous" to draw attention to a low probability outcome Peter. A very low probability outcome of drink driving is to crash a car in such a way that it crushes a child playing football in his back garden. Would you argue that that campaign is also "inherantly disingenuous"? I'd argue that both campaigns are valid because they both draw attention to a dreadful outcome that becomes more likely as a result of the behaviour that the campaign seeks to deter.

Peter Carney said...

Dave: I didn't mean it was inherently disingenuous to draw attention to a low probability outcome; my point was actually that it's inherently disingenuous not to.

In regard to drink driving I would argue that the consequences to yourself and others from an ad hoc and avoidable episode of recklessness deserve to be highlighted.

Smoking, on the other hand (no pun intended), is habitual, its health risks are cumulative and damage is generally personal. For these reasons, if not the prime principle of truth, I take issue with a government policy that resorts to plain and simple propaganda.

Dave said...

Whoa there Gerard! Firstly, I don't see where the state is spinning facts. Are you claiming that camels wandering by the pyramids or the phrase "Lucky Strike" depict smoking more accurately than photographs of physical traumas towards which smoking has been shown to contribute? Secondly, when you talk of "an iron fist of a more illiberal kind", whose rights are being infringed exactly? Smokers can still buy their preferred brand. Shops can still sell them. Tobacco companies can still make them. Granted, the packaging designers have had the rug pulled out from under them but so what? If that packaging was effective it distorted judgment and if it wasn't effective its absense makes no difference.

Rob Gillanders said...

I would say the fist is fairly illiberal when its attempting to scare people into doing what it wants (be it in the peoples best interest or not).

Out of interest, would anyone be happy if beer bottles had pictures of vomit, battered wives or car crashes on the label?

Gerard O'Neill said...

One thought: the graves of marketing are filled with the corpses of advertising campaigns that were meant to 'shock' people into changing their behaviour (from speed, to alcohol to counter-terrorism in Northern Ireland).

The problem with quite of few of them was that not only did they not work - they often elicited the opposite behaviour to that intended.

The CIA call it 'blowback'. Kind of like nudging people to reduce their energy consumption only to annoy them into increasing it...


So let's be scientific about it: a few controlled experiments before leaping in head first?