How far will plain packaging penetrate?

Did you know that plain packaging could be coming to a marketplace near you?

Pat Reynolds, VP Editor
Pat Reynolds, VP Editor

The controversy surrounding this movement, if that’s the right word for it, has been simmering for at least the past five or six years. But it’s heating up to a brisk British boil ever since U.K. legislation that went into effect on May 20 of this year banned brightly colored branding from packages of tobacco. The law stipulates that only a single plain color be used: Pantone 448, determined by market researchers in Australia to be the world’s ugliest color. The law also says that all brand names must be written in the same standard font and size and that they must always be in the same on-pack location.

The theory, of course, is that less enticing packaging will reduce the prevalence of smoking, especially among younger people. Australia led the way with its version of plain packaging legislation way back in 2012. As a 2015 Bloomberg News post put it, “Plain packaging laws for cigarettes have thrown the Marlboro Man off his horse in Australia.” This legislation, by the way, has withstood vigorous legal challenges and still stands in effect today. Numerous other countries—about 25 in all—are looking into similar legislation or have already passed it.

All of which has a number of people wondering if this might be one big slippery slope. Bloomberg again: “Junk food and booze could follow tobacco in plain pack push.”

Few are more worried about this potentially slippery slope than Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank that promotes free market economics. He sees such government initiatives as over-zealous intrusion by the nanny state and an unwelcome attempt at infantilizing adult consumers.

“Plain packaging is currently only applied to tobacco products in a handful of countries worldwide, but if health activists have their way that will change,” Snowdon tells Packaging World. “It is becoming clear that health activists have a broader agenda to use the ‘tobacco playbook’ in their efforts to apply extreme regulations to other sectors. Campaigners in Australia have called for plain packaging of children’s toys on the grounds that existing packaging encourages gender stereotyping. With governments such as the U.K. passing tobacco-style ‘sin taxes’ on soft drinks and discussing tobacco-style advertising bans on fast food, we must wonder if the day will come when they demand tobacco-style packaging laws as well?”

In the spirit of full disclosure, it’s worth mentioning that according to Wikipedia, Snowdon has drawn criticism for alleged “proximity” to tobacco industry interests. Whether such criticism is deserved or not, I find myself agreeing with his position that expanding plain packaging to confectionery, fast food, alcohol, or children’s toys would indeed be a case of the nanny state going too far, regardless of how good nanny’s intentions might be. Not only would such legislation deprive brand owners of their intellectual property rights, it could also lead to consumer confusion about product origin and quality. And a number of observers are worried it would open the door to an increase in counterfeit products.

Food and beverage manufacturers have kept quiet on the subject for the most part. But one firm that has gone on record is confectionery giant Mars, whose legal experts in 2012 wrote to Britain’s Department of Health: “Mars is concerned that the introduction of mandatory plain packaging in the tobacco industry would also set a key precedent for the application of similar legislation to other industries, including the food and non-alcoholic beverage industries in which Mars operates.”

Also weighing in on the topic is the U.K.-based Consumer Packaging Manufacturers Alliance. Representing both buyers and suppliers of packaging, the group has said that plain packaging would have “catastrophic effects,” shifting investment and manufacturing jobs outside of Britain.

Who knows where this British brouhaha will lead? In the meantime, a word of advice to all you package designers out there: Lay off the Pantone 448 C.

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