One Principle of Liberalism Seemingly Forgotten in the Plain Packaging Debate This Week

The federal government’s plain-packaging laws have passed their latest hurdle, a legal challenge in the High Court of Australia which was struck down earlier this week, paving the way for the commencement of the policy from the 1st of December this year. The judgement was eagerly awaited with some predicting the costs of a potential loss at billions of dollars for loss of trademark and intellectual property.

But alas, this never transpired and we are just months away from olive green becoming the most hated colour in the country- or maybe it is already given that it was chosen as the colour for the so-called “drab packaging” that tobacco products will now be clothed in.

On the free choice side of the debate it was all about the right of companies to their intellectual property and trademarks despite the judgement by the highest court in the land.

But there was one element of liberalism that has seemed to be conspicuous in its absence from the debate over the plain packaging laws at least around and since the judgement and that is the ‘Harm Principle’ as defined by the philosopher, John Stuart Mill. This principle states that the actions of individuals should only be limited in order to prevent harm to other individuals. Writing in his book On Liberty, Mill stated “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Since the judgement, people have screamed, “well what about putting alcohol in the same ordinary and uniform packaging boat?”. I’m not exactly sure, but last time I checked, the decision to inhale dangerous amounts of alcohol was completely up to the user and the fumes, while awful and an assault on the senses for those within cooee of a heavy drinker, do not have the ability to kill.

That doesn’t mean the effects of alcohol, which have had increased public exposure recently won’t lead to harm to others, sadly they will and that is an horrific reality of a mind-altering substance. Moves have and will continue to be made in an attempt to reduce that harm that is caused to others around heavy drinkers. The difference here is that there is generally a safe level of alcohol consumption before your behaviour becomes thuggish whereas with smoking there is not. Violent offenders too can be that way with or without buckets of booze in their systems.

Putting harmful tobacco products in uniform packaging has only a little, in itself to do with affecting in a positive way the idea put forward by the 19th century political philosopher. But it may go some way to achieving that end.

To put cigarettes in olive green packs will likely not lead to an immediate cut in the rate of smoking as those already puffing away will likely continue as they know their brands well and the new packaging will have little or no impact on their decision-making processes. It’s even debatable whether or not the changes will have any real impact at all with no practical evidence The graphic pictures which couple with the health warnings may continue to contribute to a decline in the rate of smoking as evidence has shown.

But old-style army colour packaging, while possibly contributing to cutting down in the long-term the amount of people sucking back on a cancer stick, coffin nail, call it what you will, while diminishing the harm caused to others by this dreadful habit, will not completely remove that threat of harm to others. Only other measures can do that.

But surely any measure that does have at least some impact in diminishing the number of people smoking in the country surely removes the harm caused to some people and should be celebrated as a positive for public health. Second-hand smoke is bad after all and the less people blowing smoke in your face the better.

But given the danger that smoking is to not just the user, but those around them, the application of the Harm Principle could go much further. Think asbestos. That product causes awful sickness and death too, though smoking at a much higher rate, bu asbestos was phased out late in the 20th century and then banned by the government in 2003.

It is true also that a lot of the harm to others has been removed with many states banning smoking in a variety of public spaces which differs state by state, territory by territory. This can only be seen as a positive step forward.

Moves might continue toward an eventual ban of these slender killing machines, but only when the federal government finds within itself the ability to wean itself off the revenues generated in an attempt to change the behaviour of individuals. Then and only then will the true and full extent of the Harm Principle of John Stuart Mill be realised. That and it might well save substantial healthcare dollars which could be funneled elsewhere.

About Tom Bridge

A perennial student of politics, providing commentary for money and for free. Email me at tbridgey@gmail.com or contact me on 0435 035 095 for engagements.

Posted on August 17, 2012, in Federal Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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