Plain packaging for food and drinks? Enough is enough

Oliver Norgrove

June 5, 2019

A call has been made for new measures which would see sugar treated similarly to tobacco in shops up and down the UK. The left-wing Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has, in its latest report, made the case for mandatory plain packaging to be introduced on all sugary confectionary and fizzy drinks, in a radical bid to “improve the nation’s health”.  

According to the report, the proposals would put unhealthy snack options, such as crisps and sweets, on a more level playing field with healthier alternatives like fruit and vegetables, and would also help to combat child pestering in shops, which often leads to parents buying junk food snacks to keep their children happy. 

But while a reasonable argument can made to supermarkets for reducing so-called “pester power”, parents remain responsible, both financially and ethically, for the dietary choices of their children, and should have the willpower to say no if they deem it appropriate. Personal and parental responsibility can and should stand strong if adults feel that confectionary and certain drinks should not be consumed by children. 

Individuals not only have the capacity for rational decision-making, a fact unaltered by the existence of advertising, they are also very often the source of wants. J.K. Galbraith, in his landmark work The Affluent Society, argued: “if the individual’s wants are to be urgent, they must be original with him. They cannot be urgent if they must be contrived for him.” 

Our environments do not control us like robots, we have the internal ability to think and decide before acting.  Consumer wants are not created externally by marketing campaigns, bright colours, or television ads. If a want is sincere or strong, it will originate within the individual and not be planted within them arbitrarily by an external medium. 

The big misunderstood reality of advertising is that it is fundamentally in pursuit of changing consumer interests, not leading them. Advertising helps consumers to make choices between brands, but the starting desire for the product – or version of a product – begins with the individual consumer. It is manufactured publicity designed to edge out market rivals. 

In addition to this, proposals to force companies to repackage their products will come at a significant cost. The repackaging costs may be shifted onto employees of the affected companies, and certainly TV channels stand to lose out on steady revenue if go-to advertisers are unable to promote their goods as they currently do. 

And what would all of this be for? Existing evidence linking plain-packaged cigarettes with levels of smoking do not tell a particularly pleasing tale. Davidson and da Silva’s 2014 study examining the effects of plain packaging on smoking in Australia found no evidence that the policy led to a decrease in per household expenditure on tobacco. 

Since confectionary and fizzy drinks do not experience the same level of stigma which afflicts tobacco, it is hard to argue that plain packaging will have a statistically significant effect on the consumption of sugary snacks and drinks in the UK. Instead, the main consequence will be to decrease the appeal and attractiveness of doing business in the UK. 

The items of food and drink found under the spotlight of the IPPR’s latest report are perfectly fine if not eaten to excess and found within a well-balanced diet – unlike smoking, which has no safe level of consumption.

Consumers are already perfectly aware of the kinds of foods that should not be eaten all the time, and despite the newfound tendency to politicise every aspect of our lives, private dietary choices are best left private and untouched by the pressure of public scrutiny. 

The IPPR would do well to acknowledge that stripped of influencing the minds of young children, this radical new policy proposal is just another example of the creeping illiberalism infesting contemporary British society. Not only is it likely plain packaging would have a negligible impact on consumer habits, it also assumes that shoppers are bereft of agency or responsibility and moulded entirely by their environment.  

The Tories have entertained the whims of the public health lobby far too much already. Enough is enough.


Written by Oliver Norgrove

Oliver Norgrove is a master's student of constitutional politics, former Vote Leave staffer, and Brexit commentator.


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