- - Sunday, February 8, 2015


The right of a company to sell a can of beans or a bottle of soda pop — or a pack of cigarettes — with trademarks ablaze is a no-brainer in a land of the free. But such freedom invariably makes a nanny’s teeth itch. The Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain can’t resist the urge to scratch that familiar itch.

His health minister has proposed a “plain packaging” scheme to remove all logos, colors, unique lettering and other brand identification from packs of cigarettes, replacing them with a drab brown packaging. The only identifying graphic, in addition to the brand name in small block lettering, would be a gruesome illustration of all the bad things that can happen to cigarette smokers. The soup Nazis strike again.

Reducing the use of tobacco is a good thing we can all applaud, but this is a step too far, and in the wrong direction, and nannies are eager to spread their own contagion. Mr. Cameron’s plain packaging idea is inspired by a similar law in Australia, which stripped cigarette packages bare but for large color illustrations of rotting teeth, dead fetuses and diseased eyeballs. This kind of scaremongering was lauded as imaginative and revolutionary when it was mandated by the Australian government in December 2012, but it hasn’t dissuaded very many smokers from lighting up.

Smoking has increased in four of Australia’s five states since cigarettes were put in plain packages. The black market for cigarettes is booming too, increasing by an estimated 10 percent in the past year, according to one independent study.

While there is little evidence that plain packaging does anything to prevent smoking, Britain is determined to follow, anyway, and it could be a costly folly. Philip Morris International, the makers of Marlboro and a number of other well-known cigarette brands, is preparing to sue the British government to “protect its rights in the courts and to seek fair compensation.” Philip Morris says plain packaging would destroy the company’s brand, which has been independently valued at more than $16 billion.

Mr. Cameron should think again about his idea for plain packages, not for the sake of tobacco companies and their evil weed, but for the sake of the dangerous precedent the scheme sets. Once the U.K. removes legally registered trademarks, to be replaced by whatever unelected bureaucrats deem plain enough in the pursuit of public health, where does the meddling end? Too much fat in a hamburger is not good for you, nor is alcohol or sugar, so McDonald’s Golden Arches, Budweiser’s bow tie logo and Coca-Cola’s red and white bottle design, perhaps the most recognizable trademark in the world, must go.

The debate in Britain over plain packaging is a caution for our own busybodies. Bad public policy decisions easily leap across national boundaries, and even oceans, and Mr. Cameron’s bad decision is bad news for companies, consumers and intellectual property rights in the United States and other places where freedom struggles to survive.

Brands are a valuable and necessary part of a free market. They send a message about perceived quality and enable consumers to choose among a buffet of products. Companies have a right to distinguish themselves in the marketplace, just as consumers have a right choose brands they like and trust, whether the nannies like it or not. It’s one of the consolations of growing up.

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