MT popped along to the unimaginatively-titled International Food & Drink Event this week, a giant trade fair at London’s ExCel, where supermarket buyers trawl for the next big thing in FMCG. Among the cheese makers, brewers and olive oil bottlers was a less likely exhibitor: Japan Tobacco International.
Of course tobacco is technically a fast-moving consumer good, but the maker of Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut, one of the ‘Big Five’ tobacco firms (along with Altria, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands and Philip Morris) wasn’t there to flog cigarettes to supermarkets.
Instead it’s hoping to show food and drinks companies that they’re next in the regulators’ firing line. Its stand, decked out like a nightmarish carnival, carried warnings that promotion bans, taxes and plain packaging could leave unhealthy food and drinks as restricted as tobacco.
Once a normal product no less accessible than a tin of beans, cigarettes have slowly been enveloped by a straightjacket of promotional regulations as society’s tolerance for tobacco has waned – in the West at least.
The UK banned almost all forms of tobacco advertising in 2001, added graphic health warnings to packets in 2008 and prohibited the display of tobacco products in shops by 2015. From this May you won’t be able to find a branded pack of smokes anywhere as the introduction of plain packaging comes into force.
Most people find it hard to empathise with an industry blamed for the death of 78,000 people each year in the UK alone, so no wonder JTI wants to find common cause with food and drinks companies. ‘We are basically giving a wake-up call to other industries, food and drink, about how they are next in line for extreme regulation,’ says Jonathan Duce, JTI's director of external comms. ‘Tobacco regulation is being used as a blueprint to be copied and pasted over into other sectors. When these types of regulations start to move into the mainstream, that’s the point consumers say maybe they’ve gone a bit too far.’
Could the near future bring a branding ban for craft beers and graphic health warnings on Cadbury’s Dairy Milk? Don’t rule it out. Alcohol companies already face heavy restrictions in the way they advertise. In December Public Health England called for the extension of plain packaging rules to booze and the government is already pressing ahead with the ‘sugar tax’ on fizzy drinks, which will come into force next April.
Big Tobacco has a well-rehearsed line against plain packs, which were first introduced by Australia in 2011. The decline in smoking rates Down Under hasn’t accelerated since the ban, says Duce, but counterfeiting has (anti-smoking campaign Action on Smoking and Health disputes both of those claims).
But the argument goes further than practicality. Banning its branding from basically everywhere effectively deprives JTI and the rest of the industry of its intellectual property, as well as harming those marketing companies who would otherwise be involved in the design of branding. ‘If one brand owner loses the right to brand their product, that sets a dangerous legal precedent for other brand owners,' says Duce. ‘We think collectively all types of businesses should be talking about the importance of brands.’
Extending branding bans to alcohol and confectionery would certainly harm both of those industries (and their workers, and the exchequer) greatly. Would people pay the same amount of cash for a bottle of Brewdog, let alone a 1977 vintage Laphroaig, if it came from the same drab green bottle as every other brand? Of course not. And what’s more it would make entering the industry as a new company nigh on impossible (when was the last time you heard of a new cigarette brand?).
‘It’s an absurdity,’ Jared Brown, founder of the Sipsmith gin microdistillery, told the Guardian back in January. ‘It will crush the craft side of the industry. It will shift the business back to the industrial producers, who will be very happy to move people back to mass-produced drinks. If something like this comes through we won’t be able to weather it.’
Few will mourn the tobacco market when it is inevitably snuffed out. But given the success of anti-smoking measures it’s likely that health campaigners will press for similar regulations on food and drink in the future. It would be wrong if measures used to kill off tobacco, which is uniquely unhealthy among legal substances, were used to rid our thriving food and drink industries of some of their best-loved brands.