Now there’s proof.

Bill Wirtz

What a bold move for the French government it was: first European country to introduce the plain packaging of tobacco, following Australia’s example. Minister of Health Marisol Touraine wanted a bold switch from the coloured cigarette packs to the new green-ish plain packaging, which is now compulsory for sales. The legislation intends to discourage smoking overall, reducing public health concerns related to smoking.

Not only was the implementation disastrous — with the French government spending €100 million to buy up the remaining stock of coloured packs — the foreseeable indifference of the consumers has now been proven as well. The overall consumption of tobacco has not considerably fallen, it hasn’t even fallen by a bit: in fact, there have been 1.4 per cent more tobacco sales in the period 1st of January-31st of March 2017 than in 2016, rising from 10.67 billion tons to 10.82 billion tons. Additionally, the sales of loose tobacco (to roll cigarettes) has increased by 3.6 per cent, despite the introduction of a new tax on this product, intended to discourage its use.

But, but… we had good intentions…

Of course the French government was quick to dismiss these recently published sales stats, pretending that effects have to observed in the long term. What is important to know is that plain packaged cigarettes do not only exist since January 2017 in France. In fact, the legislation introduced the greenish-packs in May 2016, it just left time to the tobacconists to sell the old ones until January. As most salespoints profited off the government’s promise to reimburse them in case old packs were leftover, they have been selling plain packaged cigarettes for 10 months already, showing no effect on tobacco consumption what so ever.

The failure of this plain packaging policy in Australia was also something studies had reported on, especially showing no effect for the consumption of minors, but none of the arguments — reaching from the ineffectiveness of the policy, the freedom of the brands to design their products themselves, to the easing of tobacco counterfeiting — were able to convince Paris that this law was a fundamentally bad idea.

In a ditch and still digging

We can expect that France will continue to spin this story as positively as possible. If the necessary result does indeed fail to show up, it is likely that the government will continue to increase the taxes on tobacco, as they did in 2008 after the smoking ban in bars, clubs and restaurants failed to lower consumption. Emmanuel Macron already announced that he is “ready” to increase the average price of a pack of smokes from €7 to €10. Spinning the effects of this policy might eventually lead France to advocate for an EU-wide implementation of the ban on coloured packaging as an EU directive.

And yet, Bastiat’s “Seen and the Unseen” has been proven yet again. Now it’s time to convince the policy makers to actually listen.

Your favourite libertarian. Based in Brussels.