Many people celebrate a graduation, a major business success or becoming a father or grandfather with a special bottle of wine. Often no expense is spared, with fancy French champagne or a bottle of Grange, perhaps in a special presentation box, among the favourites.
But imagine if that special bottle came without the fancy presentation pack or the winemaker’s label. Instead, the label is a drab green colour, stating just the name of the wine. There is no further information about where it 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.
You would not be able to confirm that the wine is genuine. Apart from the assurance of the retailer, it could be a bottle of cheap plonk with a misleading label. Fortunately this is not the case with wine, at least not yet. However, it is reality with something else that is 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 them.
As it happens, apart from the need for a lighter and ashtray, cigarette and cigar smokers don’t have much in common. Cigarette smokers typically consume 10 to 20 smokes each day; regular cigar smokers average just 2 to 4 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.
Males and females both smoke cigarettes, including young people; cigar smokers are overwhelmingly male (hence the celebration of fatherhood or grandfatherhood) and in the 40 to 60 year age bracket. 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 a good and bad cigar. Their discrimination between products can also descend into wankery. But unlike wine drinkers, while they typically have their favourites, when looking for a special celebration cigar they step into the unknown.
A consumer wanting the cigar-equivalent of French champagne or Grange is stuck with a plain label, despite prices that can range over $100 each. Retailers might offer some verbal advice as to what kind of cigar would be suitable, but anything beyond that 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 that justifies imposing the coercive power of the state. A free society should only impose restrictions on voluntary action if it is 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.
David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats.