Countering Industry Arguments Against Plain Packaging: The Nanny State is going Too Far

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The argument that “the nanny state is going too far” is a well-established and frequently used libertarian argument to oppose tobacco control legislation, aimed at gathering public support among, as BAT’s former Corporate and Regulatory Affairs Director Michael Prideaux said, “people who wouldn’t normally take notice of what the tobacco industry say”.1 Nanny state is a term which conveys the view that a government or its policies are overprotective or interfering unduly with personal choice.


Internal tobacco industry documents show that this ‘Freedom to smoke argument’ was contrived as an industry tactic as far back as 1966 to influence public opinion and oppose regulation and has been repeatedly used by Forest.2 Forest, an industry funded smokers’ rights group, has worked to shift the focus away from the health impacts of smoking to issues of personal liberty. Industry documents show that in 1978, the Public Relations group Edelman, commissioned by the RJ Reynolds tobacco company, advocated that the industry reverse the increasingly unfavourable trends in public opinion regarding the social acceptability of smoking through the use of “a systematic program for allying…industry…with public health groups that espouse the dangers of governmental encroachments in personal choices and lifestyles”.3

Plain Packaging in the UK

In the plain packaging debate in the UK, Forest has led the Hands Off Our Packs campaign, which claims that if cigarettes are to be sold in plain packaging, it is only a matter of time before plain packaging and large health warnings will be applied to other consumer products, such as fizzy drinks, fatty foods and alcohol. However, although some public health advocates are calling for increased regulation on alcohol and food, the case of tobacco is unique. Tobacco is the only product that kills 1 out of 2 of its lifelong users when used exactly as directed,4 the vast majority of habitual smokers start before adulthood,5 the product is addictive6 and many young smokers underestimate the difficulty of giving up.78

Countering Industry Arguments Against Plain Packaging

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  1. C. Thompson, Big Tobacco hits out at Big Mother, The Financial Times, 7-8 April 2012
  2. Brown & Williamson, If you enjoy smoking…act now to protect your freedom to smoke, 15 April 1966, accessed August 2012
  3. Summary report on public affairs components of SOSAS research. Section 1, RJ Reynolds library, 22 December 1978, accessed September 2012
  4. R. Doll, R. Peto, K. Wheatley, R. Gray, I. Sutherland, Mortality in relation to smoking: 40 years’ observations on male British doctors. British Medical Journal, 1994, 309, 901-11
  5. G. A. Giovino, Epidemiology of tobacco use among US adolescents. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 1991, 1, 31-40
  6. Royal College of Physicians, Nicotine addiction in Britain. 2000
  7. J. M. Wolburg, Misguided optimism among college student smokers: Leveraging their quit-smoking strategies for smoking cessation campaigns. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 2009, 43(2), 305-31
  8. B. Lynch, R. Bonnie, Toward a youth-centred prevention policy. In B, Lynch, R. Bonnie (eds) Growing up tobacco free: Preventing nicotine addiction in children and youths. 1994, Washington DC: National Academy Press