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Plain tobacco packs – “draconian” or a massive win for public health?

The Australian leads its story on the Rudd Government’s plans for plain packaging of tobacco products with an adjective to delight the tobacco industry, describing it as “the world’s most draconian anti-smoking laws”.

Meanwhile, public health experts are enthusing wildly about the announcement (more reports here from the ABC and here from the SMH).

The Public Health Association’s statement quotes its president, Professor Mike Daube, who chaired the National Preventative Health Taskforce’s tobacco committee, describing the “landmark” move as a “massive win for public health”.

“This makes Australia the world leader in tobacco control, and will add a crucial contribution to the decline in smoking,” he said.

“This is the most important national development in tobacco control since tobacco advertising was banned in the 90s. It is hard to overstate the importance of this measure, which removes the last crucial location for tobacco promotion, especially to children. It sends out a massive signal that cigarettes are on the way out.”

Another tobacco control campaigner, Professor Simon Chapman, who is also hitting the airwaves to praise the move, has tweeted that it is “massive global news”.

Chapman and his University of Sydney colleagues Becky Freeman and Matthew Rimmer published an article in the journal Addiction last year, calling for such a move. You can download the article in full here; it is the one titled: The case for the plain packaging of tobacco products.

Freeman says: “I echo the optimistic sentiments of my colleagues by saying this is is a red letter day for public health! This is a world first that will undoubtedly be rolled out in other countries who follow Australia’s lead.

“It is indisputable that advertising and marketing tobacco products promotes both smoking uptake and tobacco consumption. Every time a cigarette pack is sold, taken out of a handbag, shared around a huddle of smokers, or even tossed on the pavement, the pack itself serves as a mini portable advertisement.

“The modern cigarette pack is not simply a cardboard box designed to hold your smokes. Metallic finishes, unique shapes, bevelled edges, bright colours, printing on the outer film, textured paper, holograms – the list goes on. Cigarette pack design is highly researched and designed with specific target audiences in mind. Rest assured no sales demographic is calling out for a purely functional pack covered in vivid health warnings.

“The industry has a long track record of vigorously opposing any measure that seeks to regulate packaging. And really, why wouldn’t they? Packages act as a “silent salesmen” and allow smokers, especially newer, younger smokers – to signal their social identity to the world. Are you an urban fashionista? Wealthy with discerning tastes? Just a regular bloke? There is a cigarette pack designed especially for you.

“Tobacco industry insiders long ago admitted that “one of every two smokers is not able to distinguish in blind (masked) tests between similar cigarettes …for most smokers and the decisive group of new, younger smokers, the consumer’s choice is dictated more by psychological, image factors than by relatively minor differences in smoking characteristics.”

“Since the 1970’s, Australia has progressively banned tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Regulating the cigarette pack is simply an extension of this exceptionally successful legislation. January 2012 can’t come soon enough.”

Meanwhile, here is the relevant extract from the National Preventative Health Taskforce’s report:

“In Australia and other countries that have already banned traditional forms of tobacco marketing, packaging has become a cornerstone of marketing strategy. Brand names and package design enable the communication of personal characteristics, social identity and aspirations,[90] and are a crucial aspect of marketing tobacco products.[91, 92] Market-testing studies show that package design – through the use of varying colour and other design elements – induces smokers to expect, and then actually experience, their cigarettes to be lower strength, lower in tar and lower in health risk than exactly the same cigarettes presented without this packaging.[93, 94] These misperceptions are part of the constellation of modifiable tobacco marketing factors that make smoking easier to take up and harder to quit.

As noted above, there can be no justification for allowing any form of promotion for this uniquely dangerous and addictive product which it is illegal to sell to children. ‘Plain packaging’ entails prohibiting brand imagery, colours, corporate logos and trademarks, and permitting manufacturers only to print the brand name in a mandated size, font and place, in addition to required health warnings and other legally mandated product information such as toxic constituents, tax-paid seals or package contents. A standard cardboard texture would be mandatory, and the size and shape of the package and cellophane wrapper would also be prescribed. A detailed analysis of current marketing practices[92] suggests that regulations prescribing plain packaging would also need to encompass pack interiors and the cigarette itself, given the potential for manufacturers to use colours, bandings and markings, and different length and gauges to make cigarettes more ‘interesting’ and appealing. Any use of perfuming, incorporation of audio chips or affixing of ‘onserts’ would also need to be banned.

Consumer research indicates that decreasing the number of design elements on the package reduces its appeal and perceptions about the likely enjoyment and desirability of smoking. [95] Requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging would reinforce the idea that cigarettes are not an ordinary consumer item. It would also reduce the potential for cigarettes to be used to signify status. Plain packaging would increase the salience of health warnings: research subjects show an improved ability to recall health warnings on plain packs.[96-98]

Guidelines for implementation of Article 11 adopted by the WHO’s Conference of the Parties to the FCTC state:

Parties should consider adopting measures to restrict or prohibit the use of logos, colours, brand images or promotional information on packaging other than brand names and product names displayed in a standard colour and font style (plain packaging).[99]

Shareholder nervousness[100] and industryopposition to restrictions on pack design are a strong indication of the importance of packaging to tobacco sales.[101]

‘In our opinion, [after taxation] the other two regulatory environment changes that concern the industry the most are homogenous packaging and below-the-counter sales. Both would significantly restrict the industry’s ability to promote their products.’ Morgan Stanley Research (2007)[102]

Threatened legal challenges from tobacco companies also testify to the importance they attach to packaging as a promotional mechanism. Given that trademark law is aimed at protecting broader public interests and doesnot provide for absolute private property rights, plain packaging isjustifiable, proportionate and not inconsistent with international trade agreements. International agreements provide flexibilities and exceptions to protect public health.

The industry has argued that plain packaging would make it easier to counterfeit cigarette packets. However, this need not be the case. Strategies proposed in the FCTC’s draft protocol to combat illicit trade include the mandating of tax markings that would make cigarette packages extremely difficult to counterfeit.”

Update: Meanwhile, you can also read Freeman and Chapman at the National Times.

Update: The Government’s announcement is here.

Comments 27

  1. Socrates says:

    What exactly is draconian about this? We have all sorts of restrictions on advertising for all sorts of reasons for other products far less harmfull. I’d ask the opposite question – if a product is proven harmful to its users, why is it still allowed to be sold? How would cigarretes get FDA type approval as a safe consumer product today? They wouldn’t. Cigarettes make alco-pops look like a health tonic.

  2. surfer says:

    C’mon Labor will need at least another 3 years of reviews and invistigations before this happens under Rudd.

  3. Quitober Challenge says:

    Sounds good to me to have this law passed and leaves more room to promote health messages on the pack. I have set my goal to have our awareness campaign printed on packets of cigarettes in the same way that Quit gets its quitline number on the packets presently.

    I have been trying to get the message out that the Quitober Challenge is coming!
    Yes, you guessed it, what Movember is to the moustache, Quitober is to quitting smoking during October & beyond.

    It is a pity however that the event has been snubbed by Quit & our health industry here in Australia so far. This type of campaign is a new & innovative imitative that uses the same forces that got smokers started in the first place, social networks.
    This type of campaign is huge in Canada where they two such events during March & had over 43,000 smokers take part this year.

    If we are going to be the most progressive country in the world on Tobacco control I would suggest that we need to improve in this area of internet use & social networks to get there.

    Stay tuned for further posts.

  4. David Sanderson says:

    The tobacco companies seriously hate this move and that is a sure sign that it will hit sales hard. Most amused by their PR flacks claiming that the plain packs could have health risks – is their anything these people will not do or say?

  5. Socratease says:

    This is a good move. An even better move would be to insist that the word “cigarettes” be replaced with “FILTHY STINKING CANCER STICKS”.

  6. David Sanderson says:

    The next step is to limit where they are sold and further restrictions on smoking in public areas.

  7. Holden Back says:

    Do I see a role for Nick Minchin here?

  8. Holden Back says:

    Or maybe Sophie Mirabella?

  9. Elan says:

    A good move I agree. But it also highlights Governmental hypocrisy.

    Monetary gain does tend to do that.

  10. Christine Johnson says:

    Should tobacco companies take a profit hit will it curtail their donations to the Liberal Party? Will the absence of a product description lead to consumer litigation?

  11. dkit says:

    Given the way the state is heading towards tighter and tighter restrictions in tobacco:

    How long till we the first ‘smokeasy’ is quietly opened?

    Personally I can’t stand smoking. Smokers may as well pee in everyone’s pocket given the effect of their smoke. However I am concerned that in the headlong rush to ban and control the state is just creating another War on Drugs and look where that is taking us. Reminds me of prohibition, 1930’s. De we really want that? Another example in my opinion of the nanny state.

    Dkit

  12. WATDSP says:

    This is a tremendous move for public health in Australia. Celebrations are definitely in order, and congratulations to all those who have worked so hard for this momentous achievement.

  13. billie says:

    It won’t stop the committed smoker from inhaling but it might stop teenagers starting.

  14. Pete WN says:

    @ David Sanderson 10.55am

    Completely agree – I lost it when I heard that argument. ‘Less healthy counterfeit cigarettes’ HAHAHA. Sounds like a US style lobbying campaign in the order of ‘socialised medicine’ – if only that wasn’t so darn effective.

    I would have loved to be in the board room when they were brain-storming the various angles they could push on this one.

  15. Socratease says:

    On a related matter, why did the government telegraph its intention 24 hours in advance to raise excise on cancer sticks by 25%?

  16. tonyofbrunswick says:

    And what we’ll see is slip on pack covers being sold at sunday markets and the cigarette pack becoming a fashion item. Or even the resurgence of the cigarette box from the 20’s.

    This will make it worse not better -it’s going to increase the number of young women smoking by turning the cigarette into more of a fashion accessory. And there won’t be the graphic reminder when they take the box out of their bags.

    I really can’t believe the stupidity of the “health” professions. It’s a shame they weren’t compelled to do some historical studies. People smoked heavily before the modern cigarette pack became popular.

  17. Croakey says:

    Socratese, I’m not sure if you are asking about how the news broke before the official announcement or whether the govt was intending to give smokers time to stock up. If it was the former, Bernard Keane’s story in Crikey has some background about how the govt released the info: http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/04/29/preventative-health-lobby-inflicting-serious-damage-on-our-freedom/

  18. Dingoes Breakfast says:

    Now i can’t afford to volunteer for State Emergency Services SES or the volunteer bush-fire fighters because i need the extra money to pay for the new TAX on my cigarettes. I guess the government will just have to put the fires out themselves after all they can afford the petrol and associated costs i donated for free in the past.

  19. David Sanderson says:

    OK, tonyofbrunswick, if you’re right the cigarette companies should welcome the plain packs. However they don’t welcome them because they are for more in touch with market realities than you apparently are.

    If you’re going to be a shill for these companies then I hope you are getting paid for it.

  20. Socratease says:

    Croakey, thanks. I’m guessing that in this case it wasn’t an intentional government leak, just Oakes doing what comes naturally.

  21. David Sanderson says:

    Dingoes Breakfast, perhaps you should have also mentioned that your adorable puppy will now die of starvation and your sweet old granny won’t get a Chrissy present this year. Maybe you should also say that your teeth will fall out because you can no longer afford toothpaste and your own house is going to burn down because you couldn’t afford to buy a fire extinguisher.

    There is no end to it once you get started.

  22. Croakey says:

    The increased financial costs to consumers of tobacco pales into significance next to the financial and other costs of developing a serious tobacco-related illness…

  23. Sun says:

    @David Sanderson, of course the tobacco industry is unhappy with plain packs, it means putting effort into thinking about how to cut losses and effort means money. I agree with tonyofbrunswick in that the plain packs may make cigarette cases into a fashionable accessory. And if we’ve thought of it, no doubt the tobacco companies have too. You only have to look at the variety and availability of mobile phone covers to see that it’s a viable option.

  24. WATDSP says:

    Dingoes Breakfast: How many fires have been started by cigarettes? Bush fires, house fires, deaths… Thankfully the government has adopted legislation for reduced fire risk cigarettes, so I suppose they WILL be stubbing out some fires themselves.

  25. David Sanderson says:

    If cigarette cases are such a fabulous fashion accessory the why haven’t they taken off already, regardless of existing pack decoration? Surely the existing warnings and pictures would have been enough to create a sufficient incentive?

    The fact is that these are a niche accessory mainly aimed at a girly market. There is no evidence that they will now take off. If and when I see a large number of teenage boys using such a poncy accessory I might believe you but for now I will consider this just to be a diversion and smokescreen put up by the tobacco companies.

  26. AustralianNumerals says:

    Profits of ‘poo stick’ manufacturers actually took off after advertising was banned. So the outcome of plain packaging may be lower costs of production and more profits. So not all bad news for the manufacturers of these slow burning suicide sticks. IMHO it’s pretty gutless to rely on taxation policy rather than social policy. Howard took guns away from the community. Rudd should simply do the same with poo sticks. It’s impolite to fart in lifts just as it is for smokers to breathe in them…

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