Nanny knows best: Why Big Tobacco’s attack on Mary Poppins ought to backfire

It will take more than a spoon-ful of sugar to make this medicine go down.

In its latest attempt to derail the plain cigarette packaging legislation, Big Tobacco has pulled out one of its favourite pro-tobacco messages: say no to a nanny state.

The print advertisements and website ask, “Do you really like living in a nanny state?” and explain, “The government doesn’t believe you can make your own decisions. More and more, the government is telling us what we should and shouldn’t do.”

The tobacco industry’s concern with the legislation is, of course, the loss of their branding – one of the last available avenues to market cigarettes to consumers.

It’s motive? Retaining the current level of profit by selling cigarettes that cause addiction and then prematurely kill one in every two people who smoke them.

Big Tobacco has relied on a range of arsenal and contradictory messages to fight the plain packaging legislation so far.

First we were told there was no evidence plain packaging would work. Then, we were told it would increase smoking. And most recently, that it would increase terrorism and allow organised crime to flourish.

Economically, we were told plain packaging would waste taxpayer money. And, it would cost the taxpayer even more money because the tobacco manufacturers would sue the government.

Historical nannies

The term “nanny state” was coined by British politician Iain Macleod in 1965. At one stage a health minister, he smoked furiously and died at 57 of a heart attack.

The metaphor was given further prominence by the British author and journalist Auberon Waugh. Waugh, also a heavy smoker, opposed any action on smoking and died of heart disease at 61.

Closer to home, governments have been accused of nanny stateism in the process of implementing all of our greatest public health reforms.

In the 1950s, 75% of Australian men smoked. But with bans on tobacco advertising, smoke-free legislation and increased tobacco taxes, this rate is down to less than 17%, and we now have the lowest levels of smoking ever among adolescents.

Government interventions have also resulted in other outstanding public health successes.

Interventions to reduce road trauma – with seat belts, speeding restrictions, and alcohol and drug buses – have saved the lives of more than 45,000 Australians and saved 600,000 from serious road trauma over the past 40 years.

So there is little doubt that government has a role to positively influence public behaviour.

Consumer nannies

The tobacco, alcohol and food industries often accuse the government of nanny statism. But what about the enormous influence that they’ve had, and continue to have, on our behaviour?

After all, how did we get into this public health mess with tobacco, alcohol or obesity in the first place?

In a functioning society, we need rules to promote and maintain good health. These are particularly necessary to control industries that can mount massive, long-term promotions of unhealthy products.

A 2007 study showed Australian children aged 5 to 12 years were exposed to nearly 100 food advertisements every week and more than 60% were advertisement for high-fat/high-sugar products.

It’s difficult not to view our obesity epidemic as the result of the food industry’s profound commercial success.

Junk food and drinks have promotional budgets and profits that dwarf those of healthy food or drinks. Compare the Big Mac to a zucchini.

Similarly, the meagre advertising budgets promoting active transport (walking and cycling) and physical games (bats and balls) will never be able to compete with the advertising budgets of cars, video games, television, videos and computers.

So although these private nannies use a much softer and more persuasive carrot to influence our behaviour, they are very much present.

Government’s role

It’s true that we need a balance between personal responsibility – where individuals and families take responsibility for their own health – and shared responsibility.

But equally, governments have a responsibility to create environments where healthy choices become the easiest and the most preferred.

We mustn’t allow the government to be bullied by companies intent on maximising shareholder or individual’s profit – at the expense of the nation’s health.