* This is my column in BusinessWorld on March 27, 2018.
Last week, March 22, a global coalition of 62 market-oriented independent or nongovernment think tanks and institutes sent a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) on the subject, “Five years of failure: Global coalition letter against plain packaging.” Three institutes from ASEAN countries were among the signatories: the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS) in Jakarta, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) in Kuala Lumpur, and Minimal Government Thinkers (MGT) in Manila, my think tank.
The statement was circulated well in social media particularly by signatory-institutes. The paper noted,
“After Australia implemented the policy, other industries have been targeted around the world: alcohol, sugary beverages, fatty foods, even toys. These industries employ millions and any regulation that would deny key IP assets would have a devastating global economic impact. The trademark value alone of only twelve companies associated with these sectors is estimated to be more than $1.8 trillion.
The costs of plain packaging are enormous: the loss of the innovation incentive, the mutilation of established international IP law, the market carve-out to illicit actors, including terrorists. We urge the WHO and governments around the world to stop infringing on intellectual property rights with plain packaging policies.”
This coming April 18, IDEAS will hold a public forum on “Intellectual Property Rights in the ASEAN Economic Community: Challenges and Potentials” to be held at Intercontinental Kuala Lumpur. The forum will partly cover an emerging big issue in international trade — the proliferation of illicit products.
The proliferation of illicit trade and smuggling is ironic in a period of overall tariff reduction and trade liberalization in the ASEAN and many other regions in the world.
What explains this irony?
It is non-tariff barriers (NTBs) or non-tariff measures (NTMs). After all, these require additional permits, sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS), and technical barriers to trade (TBTs).
And, as mentioned in the letter, the emerging attack on IPR — plain packaging, abolition of trademark and logo, abolition of corporate branding, initially for tobacco products. Then advocates will move to other “unhealthy” goods like alcohol, sugary drinks, confectionery and candies, and so on.
Australia is the first country in the world to legislate and implement plain packaging or standardized packaging in December 2012. The estimated consumption of illicit and smuggled tobacco products was 12.2% of overall tobacco consumption in 2011 and 11.5% in 2012.
When plain packaging was implemented, the estimated illicit consumption went up: 13.5% in 2013, 14.5% in 2014, 14.1% in 2015, 13.9% in 2016 (source: KPMG, March 2017. “Illicit Tobacco in Australia, 2016 Full Year Report”).
Removing the trademark, logo and brand via plain packaging is less of an assault on tobacco companies with long years of corporate existence but more of an assault on a country’s tradition of protecting private property rights.
Below are some numbers showing average wealth and IPR protection in 15 economies, ASEAN + five in Northeast Asia. Data sources are (a) IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) for GDP per capita, (b) Property Rights Alliance (PRA) International Property Rights Index (IPRI) 2017 Report, and (c) World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report (GCR) 2017-2018.
The GCR is composed of 12 pillars and pillar #1 is about Institutions; among the sub-pillars there is IPR protection (see table).
These numbers show that countries with high per capita GDP whether in current or nominal prices or in purchasing power parity (PPP) values are also those with high scores and global ranking in intellectual property rights (IPR) protection. And countries with low per capita income also have low scores and ranking in IPR protection. The exception to this trend is Brunei in the IPRI Report, and South Korea in the GCR.
High and rising taxes and now plain packaging as measures to discourage smoking is successful only in reducing smoking of legal and branded tobacco products. Not mentioned by advocates is that these measures are highly favorable to producers and distributors of illicit, fake, non-branded, and cheap tobacco products.
Since brand and product differentiation is effectively abolished, producers and manufacturers, old and new players, will only compete in pricing. So more cheap tobacco will be introduced and this will encourage more smoking.
To further reduce smoking incidence, governments and NGOs should continue public education about the dangers of smoking. But almost all smokers already know the dangers of smoking, the same way that cliff and plane jumpers, high wall/rock climbers, motorcycle stunt drivers, extreme bicycle downhill riders, deep sea scuba divers, MMA/UFC fighters, etc. know the dangers of their sports and passion but they keep doing it anyway, repeatedly.
People own their body, not governments or health NGOs. There is a limit to state nannyism and very often, such nannyism results in adverse, unintended consequences.
Governments should instead focus on protecting private property as a way to encourage more economic prosperity.