The Magazine

In a Plain Brown Package

Australia’s doomed effort to kill tobacco sales.

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By P.  J. O’ROURKE
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I'm sitting at my desk, looking at a photograph of a gangrenous foot. It is a bloated thing in hues of phlegmatic gray rot, sanguine inflammation, melancholic black bile, and choleric open sores​—​exhibiting all the humors of a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Above the photograph, in bold white capitals on a dull, matte background are the words “smoking causes peripheral vascular disease.” The photograph is helpfully labeled “gangrene.” Below the photograph, in a bland sans-serif typeface with letters an eighth of an inch high, is “Marlboro Red.”



This is a pack of Australian cigarettes, conforming to that nation’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act. The act went into effect on December 1, 2012, and is the strictest such legislation in the world.

The act isn’t very strict in its use of the word “plain.” I had to go through 35½ column inches of the Oxford English Dictionary before I arrived at definition 17, “homely: often used euphemistically for ill-favored, ugly.”

And the plain fact is I’ve been a journalist for more than four decades. I’ve listened to a lot of wild tales. But nothing I’ve ever heard​—​not even in the most hyperbolical regions of the Middle East from fantastical lunatics making their farthest-fetched pronouncements​—​can match “My mother died of foot gangrene from smoking.”

If putrid tootsies are not your style, there are a variety of other government-mandated images displayed on Australian cigarette packs, such as rotted gums, diseased lungs, a blind eye, a smoker’s corpse, and tongue cancer. Though the tongue cancer photo doesn’t really come off. It has the look of a graphic pornography extreme close-up where the close-up is so extreme that the graphic has displaced the porn.

Nonetheless this is a brilliant marketing campaign by the Australian authorities, doubtless designed to increase tax revenue from cigarette sales to junior high school boys. If I were in junior high I’d promptly find a way to buy (bribing an older brother or cousin, if need be) this incredibly disgusting flip-top box. And then I would be beside myself with eagerness to get to school the next day and usher my pals into the boys’ room to show off my gruesome, shoeless, sockless purchase.

In the World Gross-Out Champ-ionship, which is the preeminent event and main purpose of seventh grade, I’d retire the cup. At recess we’d show the pack to the girls, eliciting the highly coveted “ICK!” shriek. After school a certain kind of girl, the kind who made our hearts flutter (which Australia warns that cigarettes also do), would ask, “Can I try one?”

Of course we’d smoke the things. Who could resist? I can’t resist myself. As a confirmed cigar-smoker, I don’t care much for cigarettes. But the 13-year-old abides in us all. And it’s an affair of honor. I am devoted to Lady Nicotine. She has been insulted.

Hmm .  .  . they’re not bad. A little stale from travel, perhaps, but “tastes good like a cigarette should.” Or was that Winstons? No brand name appears on the individual cigarettes, just a cryptic “A001” in tiny type below the filter. That leaves me wondering if I should smoke them, in espionage novel fashion, wrong-way-round, leaving no trace of my presence to be detected by enemy spies in the employ of another branch of the U.N., the World Health Organization. But this is not a bright idea with filter cigarettes.

And “plain packaging” is not a bright idea period. Let me withdraw any imputation of base motives to the Australian government and stipulate that its legislators mean well. Legislators always mean well. They say so themselves. But​—​as certain well-meaning legislators in another country have discovered with certain well-meaning legislation about another health issue​—​meaning well is not synonymous with doing good.

Australia’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act hasn’t done any good. According to a report prepared by the auditing and consulting firm KPMG for tobacco companies doing business in Australia, the sale of cigarettes and loose tobacco for rolling cigarettes had been declining in that country by an average rate of 1.8 percent a year since 2000. Following the imposition of plain packaging a year ago, however, “total consumption of tobacco .  .  . appears to be stable.”

Sales of legally packaged and lawfully retailed Australian cigarettes are down. No surprise given that most smoking is not done in seventh-grade boys’ rooms and that a pack of cigarettes in Australia costs nearly $16. (The Australian dollar is worth approximately the same as the U.S. dollar except it has a kangaroo on it instead of George Washington.)

But this decline in sales has been offset by a 154 percent increase in sales of contraband and counterfeit cigarettes coming from overseas. These cost half as much and arrive in the pleasant traditional wrappings of their brand. (Though, in the case of counterfeit cigarettes, with some risk of misspelling​—​Malrbolo.)

In calculating the 154 percent figure KPMG seems to have done its homework​—​surveying thousands of adult Australian smokers, analyzing Australian Customs tobacco seizure data, and sending out teams to pick up the litter of 12,000 empty cigarette packs in 16 Australian cities and towns.

Not to rei-mpute base motives to the Australian government, but plain packaging has been a revenue disappointment as well. KPMG estimates that, as of mid-2013, contraband and counterfeit cigarettes have cost Australia a billion dollars in lost taxes.

Do you suppose there’s organized criminal activity involved? Consider that a pack of smokes costs a buck and a quarter in Vietnam. This makes the mark-up for smuggled heroin look like the profit margin on a Walmart Black Friday loss leader.

Plain packaging encourages gangsters, depletes Treasury reserves, and fails to make people smoke less. Furthermore it led to domestic political discord in Australia.

When deliberating what color tobacco product packages should be, the government first decided on olive green. Social scientists claimed that research shows olive green is the color least attractive to young people. Never mind the camo-pattern clothing in favor among the youthful set and the number of adolescent girls who’ve dyed their hair exactly that hue. Then the Australian Olive Association took umbrage. You don’t mess with the Olive Association. They know where your martini is. The government was forced to relent and had to settle on “drab dark brown.” It is precisely the shade that all fashionable interior decorators want to paint the living room. I assume Australia’s decorators took umbrage too.

But the greatest damage that plain packaging has done is in its perversion of moral philosophy and my cigars.

One can buy genuine Havanas in Australia. Having snuffed out my Marlboro, I am presently enjoying a Montecristo Joyitas, a full-flavored cigar with an elegant 32-ring gauge. I am not, however, enjoying its cigar box. Montecristos come in a sturdy cedar cigarrero designed to preserve aroma and freshness. The box is handsomely decorated and emblazoned with the red and gold triangular Montecristo crest with a fleur-de-lis device on a field of six crossed rapiers. It’s worth the price as an object of art even if you don’t smoke. But not any more. Not in Australia.

My Joyitas arrived encased in cardboard that was flimsy as well as drab dark brown and bearing a photograph, in this case, of rotted gums. Being that a cigar box is the size of a cigar box, those gums are in heroic scale.

The attractive and understated Montecristo cigar band​—​in a rich walnut brown​—​has also disappeared. It’s been covered with a paper collar of requisite plainness. This is nearly an inch wide, deprives me of a third of my smoke, and any attempt to remove it tears the wrapper leaf and destroys the cigar.

Each of these strips of paper has been fastened by hand with scotch tape. Mindless, useless, idiotic work is typical of many government jobs, but this seems to exceed even the typical work done in the Australian parliament.

And the Australian parliament is, no doubt, working very hard indeed. There’s no end to the work to be done once moral philosophy has become so perverted that something like “plain packaging” is considered a public benefit.

Beer is certainly next, with pictures of drunken fistfights, snoring bums, and huge, gin-blossomed noses on every can. Airplane crashes kill a lot of people. No plane should be allowed to land in Australia unless it’s painted drab dark brown and bears an image of fiery carnage along its fuselage. Cars kill even more. Perhaps a banner showing lethal wrecks could be pasted across the inside of every car’s windshield. And there’s food. Make all food drab dark brown (something of a historical tradition in Australian cooking anyway) and deck the labels with naked fat men.

Fortunately there are those who are still willing to fight for property rights and freedom of choice. Raúl Castro, for one. Cuba has gone to the World Trade Organization to challenge Australia’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act. Cuba argues that the act violates the internationally recognized rights of trademark owners and does not comply with the WTO’s agreements banning technical barriers to trade and protecting intellectual property.

When Raúl Castro is your Milton Friedman, you’re ready for the intellectual firing squad. The thought process of Australia’s legislators should be stood up against the wall of common sense. Care for a last cigarette?

P. J. O’Rourke, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author of a new book, ">The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again).

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