In publications, formal comments, and here at The Legal Pulse, Washington Legal Foundation has consistently questioned the wisdom and legality of requiring “plain packaging” for disfavored consumer products. We wrote in a December 2011 post that plain packaging laws like the one Australia formally adopted in 2012 will “boomerang . . . by creating a vigorous black market in cigarettes and forcing tobacco prices down as new and cheaper cigarettes enter the marketplace.”
Recent sales data and studies on the tobacco market in Australia show how that nation’s plain packaging law has, in fact, boomeranged as we predicted it would.
First, a late-2013 study by KPMG revealed that counterfeit tobacco sales in Australia had risen since the passage of the plain packaging law to almost 14% of the Australian market. Illicit sales not only deprive Australia of hundreds of millions in lost tax revenue, they also increase law enforcement costs in reaction to greater criminal black market activity. Australian press accounts demonstrate how the illicit sales are funding larger criminal enterprises, such as gangs. In addition, counterfeit sales have harmed Australia’s small retailers, as a study by an Australian market research firm has demonstrated.
Second, much to the shock of plain-packaging devotees, tobacco sales are increasing Down Under. Reports last month indicate that deliveries to tobacco retailers rose in 2013 for the first time in five years. This news should not be a surprise to anyone who understands basic economics and consumer behavior. Tobacco producers who are no longer able to differentiate their cigarettes from rivals through package branding and imaging, are forced to lower their prices to maintain or expand market share. Lower prices, of course, routinely lead to increased sales. Such a reaction is especially true when generic, lower-cost cigarette companies enter the market, as they have in Australia. WLF explained this effect in its 2010 comments to the Australian Parliament, emphasizing the success generic tobacco brands have had in the U.S.
Other nations such as Britain looking to sweep away trademark and speech rights with plain packaging laws should pay heed to these developments in Australia. Regulators who proceed in the face of such demonstrated economic hazards will be doing so more for ideological, rather than public health, reasons.
Also available at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page