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Plain Brown Wrappers?

It once was true that copies of Playboy, Hustler, and other (soft or hard) pornographic materials were delivered to subscribers in generic envelopes so that no one, including your local postal carrier, could see what publications you had ordered. I, of course, know that fact only on the basis of hearsay evidence.

Nowadays, though, a movement is underway to require generic packaging that does not display brand names or other identifying information for a broader range of products. That’s because someone (Michelle Obama?), somewhere does not want consumers to be “seduced” by advertising messages into buying Marlboro, Newport, Virginia Slims, Skoal, Red Man, or other goods they deem are bad for you.

A very good critique of such proposals, written by the Spanish think tank FAES Foundation, is available here. I would add only that denying protection to brand names, trademarks, and copyrights is unlikely to “solve” the perceived problems of smoking cigarettes and consuming foods high in fat, sugar, and other unhealthful ingredients. Moreover, laws to discourage consumption can have undesirable consequences. Confiscatory tax rates on cigarettes in New York City and other urban areas, for example, have facilitated the emergence of vibrant underground, black markets. As in the case of illegal drugs, if a demand exists, suppliers will fill it.

The bottom line is that brand names and other identifying information are key market signals of a producer’s commitment to quality. If you don’t accept that conclusion, I have some real estate in Florida and a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you on quite reasonable (I promise!) terms.

William F. Shughart II is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice.
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