Why should cigars be in plain packaging?

Other than the presence of tobacco, cigars and cigarettes have little in common, so why should they be subject to the same packaging rules?

Many people celebrate a special occasion — a graduation, major business success, becoming a parent or grandparent, or other milestone — with a special bottle of wine. Often no expense is spared, with fancy French champagne or a bottle of Grange among the favourites, perhaps in a special presentation box.

But imagine that special bottle without the fancy presentation pack and with a label lacking the winemaker’s logo and description, featuring merely the name of the wine on a drab, green background and no further information about where the wine was made, its vintage, the grape variety or its alcohol content.

Imagine that, with the exception of the name, the label is identical to every other bottle of wine, including those selling for a fraction of the price.

Without drinking it, you would not be able to confirm that the wine was genuine. Apart from the assurance of the retailer, it could be a cheap bottle of plonk with a misleading label.

Fortunately, this is not the case with wine, at least not yet. However, it is the case with another product often used to celebrate a special event — cigars.

Cigars are subject to the same plain-packaging and labelling laws as cigarettes. When plain packaging was legislated in 2011, the public health zealots gave no thought to cigars; it was enough that they contained tobacco and were smoked. Indeed, it’s doubtful if any of those driving the policy knew the first thing about cigars.

As it happens, apart from the need for ignition and an ashtray, cigarette smokers and cigar smokers don’t have much in common. Cigarette smokers typically consume 10 to 20 smokes each day; regular cigar smokers average just two to four cigars a week. Whereas a cigarette can be smoked in a few minutes, cigars can take over two hours. Cigarette smoke is inhaled into the lungs; cigar smoke is not.

Men and women both smoke cigarettes, including young people; cigar smokers are overwhelmingly men aged between 40 and 60. Cigarette smoking is more common among those on low incomes; cigar smokers are typically high-income earners.

Just like wine drinkers, cigar smokers know the difference between good and bad products. Yes, their discrimination between products can also descend into hyperbole, but, unlike wine drinkers, while they typically have their favourites, when looking for a special-celebration cigar, they step into the unknown.

A consumer seeking the cigar equivalent of French champagne or Grange is stuck with a plain label, despite prices that can range over $100 per cigar. Retailers might offer some verbal advice as to what kind of cigar would be suitable, but anything beyond this is prohibited.

The objective of the plain-packaging policy is to make smoking less attractive, particularly to young people. It relies on the assumption that smokers are attracted to smoking by colourful packaging.

The evidence suggests plain packaging has made no difference to an already declining rate of cigarette smoking. But the idea that it has influenced middle-aged cigar smokers is ridiculous. All it has done is make it harder for those celebrating a special event to choose a special cigar.

No doubt control freaks will argue in favour of plain packaging of cigars on the grounds that they don’t like their smell, they don’t like smoking generally, or because they know and dislike someone who smokes cigars. But none of this justifies imposing the coercive power of the state. A free society should impose restrictions on voluntary action only to prevent harm to others.

No matter what you think of cigars, subjecting them to plain packaging is a stupid policy and should be abandoned. All it does is invite plain packaging of whatever else we consume when we celebrate.

Originally Published in Retail World May Issue, 2017

David is the Liberal Democrats Senator for NSW. He is the first member of an Australian parliament elected from a classical liberal or libertarian party favouring individual choice and freedom over government intrusion.

David is a veterinarian who also has degrees in business and law.

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