The Republic of Georgia parachuted into law a plan mandating plain packaging for all tobacco products. As of now, only Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and France make it compulsory for cigarettes to be sold in neutral packs without colors or branding.
The change of heart in Georgia is no chance occurrence. Not only has the United Nations congratulated the country on its decision, the UK, backed by the World Health Organization (WHO), has pledged funding for the policy. These financial incentives are not limited to Georgia; the WHO’s FCTC 2030 project is supporting tobacco control measures in countries worldwide, including Colombia, El Salvador, Jordan, Madagascar, and Nepal.
Conditions for obtaining these funds include the “willingness to increase tobacco taxation” or the “ambitions to accelerate implementation of the WHO Framework on Tobacco Control.”
By voting for plain packaging, the Georgian parliament has gone beyond the EU’s strict directive on tobacco (TPD2), ignoring EU and WHO advice to go step-by-step. This essentially means taxpayers in the UK are paying millions of pounds to help implement a policy proven ineffective elsewhere. Australia provides the best example of this––nearly five years after plain packaging was introduced, the government’s own data shows that long term decline in smoking has actually slowed.
The United Nations isn’t Georgia’s only cheerleader in this endeavour. As the former Soviet nation is keen on joining the European Union, UN officials are using the implementation of these measures as leverage for membership negotiations. United Nations Development Program (UNDP) representatives have said:
“Passage of the draft legislation would align Georgia with its obligations as a Party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), and help meet Article 356 of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, which makes FCTC implementation a precondition for further European integration.”
The WHO has indicated that it wants to reduce the rate of smoking in Georgia by 40 percent within five years. Only a massive crackdown on lifestyle choices could make this possible.
The consequences of these policies, however, may prove far worse than just the usual nanny state restrictions on individual freedom. Australia, which introduced plain packaging in 2012, saw a 30 percent increase in tobacco counterfeiting within two years. In France, a 2015 report (before the implementation of plain packaging regulations) found the République to be Europe’s largest consumer of fake cigarettes, with 15 percent of the market share.
It is well known that plain packaging laws ease the manufacture and sale of harmful and unregulated counterfeit tobacco while tax hikes increase demand from those on lower incomes. Not only has plain packaging proved disastrous in France, with the government spending €100 million reimbursing shopkeepers for their branded stock, but indifference from consumers has increased overall consumption. There has been a 1.4 per cent increase in tobacco sales in the period from January to March of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016. Additionally, the sale of loose tobacco has increased by 3.6 per cent, despite the introduction of a new tax intended to discourage it.
Georgia’s plain packaging laws, which are due to be introduced in December 2022, will have little effect on tobacco consumption, and will likely boost black market sales, pushing consumers away from legal products. Instead of bullying aspiring EU members into bad policies, international organisations should focus on prevention and work with all parties for viable long-term solutions.