Two months ago the government made plain packaging of tobacco products mandatory. Now Dr. Judith Mackay, an advisor to the World Health Organisation, has suggested that graphic health warnings should also be compulsory on alcohol. This, she says, will ’de-normalise’ drinking.
She told The Herald that the WHO’s convention on tobacco control provided a ‘potential template’ for curbing its consumption. Dr. Mackay’s motives are transparent enough. Why, though, does she believe plain packaging is the answer?
There is very little evidence to support the theory that plain packaging puts people off smoking. In Australia, the government’s own figures say it has had no impact on cessation. In France sales of tobacco have actually risen since such regulations were introduced. Does she really think it would be any different with alcohol?
Part of the reason we have a problem with alcohol abuse in Britain is that it’s seen as ‘forbidden fruit’. There is no tradition of binge-drinking or public drunkenness in France, for example, where it’s less of a taboo; it’s common for children to have a small glass of wine with dinner.
When I was young and I wasn’t allowed to smoke or drink, obtaining cigarettes and alcohol was an exciting challenge. The fact that it was forbidden was a large part of the appeal. Warning labels telling me they were dangerous wouldn’t have put me off in the slightest.
According to psychological reactance theory, when a behaviour is threatened or removed, it becomes more important in our minds. All consuming, in some cases. We already have a perilous relationship with alcohol in this country. The last thing we should be doing is making it more mysterious and alluring.
Prohibition in the United States demonstrates that draconian laws can have unintended effects. It’s no accident that London is full of modish bars decorated in the style of 1920s speakeasies. At one I visited in Islington, colourless cocktails are purposefully served in drab, unassuming, unadorned glasses. Why? The murky, slightly dangerous atmosphere of the era is enticing. Would plain packaging reduce alcohol consumption? Or would it only add to and broaden its dangerous attraction?
Dr. Mackay suggests that the measures are required to curb problem drinkers. She’s wrong. All drinkers today are aware of the risks of excessive alcohol consumption. It’s why the majority of people don’t actually drink to excess. Genuine alcoholics, meanwhile, are hardly going to be deterred by labels telling them something they are already painfully aware of.
More gallingly, Dr. Mackay doesn’t even believe the most effective part of the strategy to combat tobacco was anything to do with packaging, but rather the cost of the product: ‘It has the most fundamental effect, and I suspect it would too in alcohol,’ she said.
If that’s the case, why bother to raise the issue of warning labels on packaging at all? Will defacing a bottle of Chateau Margaux curb alcoholism? Will pictures of diseased livers on bottles of cheap cider stop problem drinkers? The answer, obviously, is no.
The crusade to slap morbid images on drinks bottles is part of wider strategy of ‘gesture policymaking’. Those proposing the move know it will have no meaningful impact, but they have to be seen to be doing something. It is patronising to consumers, and a waste of time and resources for manufacturers. Worst of all, it may even end up having the opposite effect to that which is intended.