From December, all cigarettes in Australia will have to be sold in uniform, olive-green packets. I’m not going to get into a fight over the rights and wrongs of tobacco laws, beyond mentioning what a doctor friend pointed out to me, that it costs rather less to treat a terminal case of lung cancer for 18 months than it does to manage a cocktail of dementia, osteoporosis and various other age-related conditions for 20 years. No, what really interests me is that the battleground on which the government and the tobacco companies have been slugging it out isn’t actually the thing that actually kills people – tobacco itself and its various noxious components – but something apparently peripheral, the pictures that surround the tobacco. First it was the advertising, now the boxes. They’re getting closer to the stuff itself, but they’re still not there. It’s as if someone had reframed that cliché in defence of the US Second Amendment: “It’s not guns that kill people, or even people that kill people – it’s the designer holsters that the guns come in.”
The reason Big Tobacco has resisted these encroachments so stoutly is that they know that they can’t hope to keep making profits based on the quality of their products alone. Branding and packaging are what keep their industry going but it’s a bigger fight even than that – without pretty pictures, huge chunks of capitalism would wither and die. Even supposedly sophisticated consumers can be gulled by a good label, as academics have shown with tweaked wine tastings (but let’s pass over the fact that that article was the work of pretty-boy auto-plagiariser Jonah Lehrer). BAT and Philip Morris aren’t just sticking up for your your right to kill yourself; it’s also about your sacred right to bullshit yourself as you do it. But which amendment covers that?
PS: In the Guardian, Alex Hoban predicts that the tobacco companies will make a virtue out of the enforced uniformity, as part of their strategy of co-opting anti-corporate adbusting techniques. Nice.