Plain Packaging: It’s Not Just for Cigarettes and It's Coming to America

Speaking at a meeting of his Republicans party in Paris last week, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy sparked the outrage of left-wing French government ministers and legislators when he (jokingly) pointed out serious issues with the country’s recently-adopted plain packaging laws. The rules, which went into effect in December of last year, take France further down the nanny-state road to public health that Australia and Ireland have opted for over the past few years. Sarkozy’s comments boil down to this: eliminating branding for cigarettes in order to discourage consumers from buying them could, eventually, justify the abolition of France’s prized “controlled designation of origin” for wines and cheeses.

Jokes aside, Sarkozy makes a very good point: a new plan from Ireland’s Joint Committee on Health & Children is already pushing for the graphic warning labels printed on tobacco labels to be expanded to alcohol. There is no guarantee that, once plain packaging for tobacco is firmly in place, overzealous health officials and activists won’t take advantage to foist these condescending (and often expensive) labeling requirements on everything from beer and wine to fast food and beyond. In Australia, for one, health advocate Aaron Schultz and his “Game Changer” movement have already started arguing for plain packaging on Big Macs. Even as an adult consumer making informed decisions on whether or not to spend your own hard-earned money on legal products, these individuals seem to think they have a right to tell you what you should and should not be buying.

Ironically, it may not entirely be up to France as to whether their prized designated origin rules will survive in an era of globalized free trade. As the European Union negotiates the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States, the two sides find themselves at an impasse over how protecting brands and trademarks should work. On the American side, the idea is that a trademark is just that: a look, taste, smell, or other characteristic that can be designated as private intellectual property and legally defensible as such. As far as the Europeans (and especially the French and Italians) are concerned, rules on protecting the “rightful” origins of foods and drinks are matters of public policy to be legislated by governments and enforced the world over. Champagne, then, should only come from the Champagne region of France and Parmesan should only come from Parma; no telling what happens to California winemakers or Wisconsin dairy farmers if those rules start being applied here.

When Australia’s government went ahead with its plain packaging laws, other countries whose economies depended on tobacco as a key export took it to court to defend the intellectual property rights of tobacco companies. Indonesia, Cuba, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic collectively challenged the measures in front of the World Trade Organization last year, with part of the argument focusing on the feared slippery slope between plain tobacco packaging and government-imposed un-branding of any product bureaucrats consider unhealthy.

Already, bodies like the United Nations and the World Health Organization have started pushing for stricter regulations to curb unhealthy diets; the medical journal The Lancet, for its part, called for social engineering to combat obesity. Left-wing politicians in France mocked Sarkozy, but his question is a fair one: where does it end? As France moves ahead with its uniform cigarette packages, other countries impacted by the switch are threatening to respond in kind to the same products that Sarkozy brought up. Last summer, Indonesian tobacco farmers protesting outside the French embassy floated the idea of imposing plain packaging on French wines.

With the TTIP edging closer to completion, could this imposed homogenization of products be adopted in the U.S. as well? If it were up to the Democrats, U.S. cigarette manufacturers and customers might very well find themselves subject to French-style rules in short order. With Obamacare, Barack Obama already set the precedent of using the federal government’s tax powers to force Americans to buy health insurance, robbing them of any choice they previously had in the matter. Together with his wife Michelle and her school lunch and exercise initiatives, the soon-to-be-ex-First Couple clearly consider it their prerogative to tell other Americans how to live what the Obamas consider to be healthier lives.

If Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders take their place, why shouldn’t more regulations be slapped on a behavior the public health lobby hates? After all, American Democrats and French socialists hold the same basic philosophy to heart: there is no problem, real or imagined, that cannot be solved by big government.