While Singapore celebrates Intellectual Property Week in September 2018 aiming to become one of the global champions of intellectual property rights and investor confidence the Singaporean Ministry of Health pushes at the same time for a policy that would lead to the opposite and significantly weaken Singapore’s leadership in innovation friendliness and brand freedom in the ASEAN region. The city state could become the first Asian country to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes citing that this will reduce smoking rates and thus positively impact the health of Singapore’s population. And while the reasons for introducing plain packaging are noble and applaudable evidence from countries that have already implemented this policy suggest that it simply doesn’t work.
Australia being the world’s first country banning visible brands on cigarette packs saw a surge in organized crime making a fortune with selling cigarettes on the black market. Officially sold cigarette consumption went down but this decline got compensated by the rise of illegally sold tobacco products bypassing government quality control.
Another piece of evidence on how ill-advised this policy is the fact that French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn publicly admitting that smoking rates in her country were not impacted by plain packaging.
Some other European countries such as the United Kingdom and Ireland followed Australia’s policy on banning brands while ignoring the hard fact that the only ones who really benefit from it are criminals and terrorist groups.
Recently the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that Australia did not violate its rules by banning branding for tobacco products and made it look as it was an isolated issue. The latest push by several Australian politicians to introduce plain packaging for financial products such as consumer loans speaks another language. Once the floodgates of branding bans have been opened it is easy to infringe on other products’ brand freedom.
Currently policy makers and public health advocates around the world are discussing plain packaging for breakfast cereals and Chile has even introduced this bizarre-sounding policy claiming that it protects children. The Mayor of London has announced advertising bans for fast food in public transport and Thailand banned food ads targeted to young adults in 2017.
Singapore currently ranks 5th in the UN’s Global Innovation Index and first in the ASEAN region. The introduction of stricter rules on how infant formula milk can be advertised and marketed in late 2017 were an unusual and counter-intuitive step away from Singapore’s regional leadership in brand freedom. It seems that plain packaging for tobacco products is next in Singapore’s pipeline towards brand infringement. A slippery slope towards more regulation and less brand freedom could include many additional policy measures and result in a massive loss of investor and consumer confidence in Singapore.
Policies that boost black markets in and around Singapore, do not cause the desired effect, and weaken its role as a regional and global champion of markets and investments should be opposed. If it wants to maintain its very strong global and regional position in brand freedom and innovation Singapore should focus on evidence-based policies and embrace brand freedom instead on infringing on commercial speech and freedom of expression.