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Do Unbranded Cigarette Packages Rob You of Your Autonomy?

Beware the nanny state! Australia is going to force cigarette manufacturers to use "unbranded," and very graphic, packaging.

Australia plans to ban cigarette manufacturers from showing logos, branding, colors, and promotional text on tobacco packaging starting in January 2012. Instead, cigarette packs will be a drab olive color that research has shown is unattractive to smokers and will feature graphic images of the physical damage cigarettes wreak, along with blunt text warnings. These are some of the proposed designs for the new packs.

They're going to be the strictest restrictions on cigarette marketing in the world. If they happen. Philip Morris has already threatened to sue if the regulations go into effect. But the war is also being waged on the battlefield of public opinion. Another cigarette company, Imperial Tobacco, has set up a website to campaign against the "nanny state" legislation, warning that "the government doesn't believe you can make your own decisions."

Invoking the "nanny state" boogeyman (or perhaps, boogeywoman) is more a scare tactic than an argument. We already have regulations about alcohol advertising, warning labels on cigarettes, and disclosure requirements for pharmaceuticals. Tweaking the way cigarettes are packaged is just that—a tweak. It certainly doesn't represent a sudden lurch toward paternalism.

But on the point of who's making decisions here, the Imperial Tobacco campaign is just wrong. You can still make the decision to buy cigarettes, if that's what you want to do. They aren't going to be illegal. They're just going to be packaged in an unattractive way that's designed to get you to think twice about it. If that counts as robbing you of decision-making autonomy then so does the carefully designed packaging and advertising that cigarette companies have long used to get you to want to buy them.

When you hear someone complain that the government is trying to influence your decision about smoking, remember that Philip Morris is, too. It is hell-bent on getting you to smoke because it cares more about taking your money than preserving your good health—and it's got plenty of marketing money to help you along.

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