Reducing the appeal of smoking – first experiences with Australia’s plain tobacco packaging law

GENEVA, 22 May 2012

Australia’s pioneering measure on tobacco plain packaging introduced in December 2012 was actively supported by WHO and is being watched closely by other countries.

1 December 2012 will remain a memorable day in the history of the fight against tobacco worldwide. On this day, Australia’s world-first laws on tobacco plain packaging came into full effect. Since then, all tobacco products must be sold in standardized drab, dark brown packaging with large graphic health warnings. There are no tobacco industry logos, brand imagery, colours or promotional text. Brand and product names are printed in the same small font below hard-hitting warnings depicting the health consequences of smoking.

Tobacco: one of leading risk factors for noncommunicable diseases

Tobacco is unlike any other product on the market: the only legal consumer product that kills when used as intended by the manufacturer. Every year, more than 5 million people die because they use tobacco. Another 600 000 nonsmokers die from exposure to second-hand smoke. This makes tobacco one of the leading preventable risk factors for noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and diabetes.

Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing
Jane Halton, Secretary of the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing holding an information kit on tobacco plain packaging.

In 2011-12, 2.8 million Australians aged 18 years and over smoked daily (16.3%). Smoking is estimated to kill 15 000 Australians each year.

“The tobacco plain packaging measure is an investment in the long-term health of Australians,” explains Jane Halton, Secretary of the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. “It is a crucial part of the Australian Government’s comprehensive package of tobacco control measures to get tobacco smoking down to our aim of 10% or lower of the population.”

“Many, many smokers have commented that they don’t like the look of the new packs and also believe the taste of the cigarettes is worse.”

Kylie Lindorff, Chair, Cancer Council Australia’s Tobacco Issues Committee

Plain packaging: does it work?

Plain packaging aims to reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products, increase the noticeability and effectiveness of mandated health warnings, and reduce the ability of retail packaging to mislead consumers about the harms of smoking. Australia’s measure is based on a broad range of research and is supported by leading public health experts. By enacting the new legislation as part of a package of measures, Australia has led the way in implementing Articles 11 and 13 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the global tobacco control treaty that commits its more than 170 Parties to reduce demand and supply of tobacco products.

But does plain packaging really make using tobacco less attractive? The full effects of the plain packaging measure will be seen over the long term. However, tobacco control experts in Australia are quite enthusiastic about early anecdotal indications that plain packaging may be having an effect. According to Kylie Lindorff, Chair of the Cancer Council Australia’s Tobacco Issues Committee, the number of calls to the Quitline, Australia’s smoking cessation support service, have increased considerably since the law entered into force. “Many, many smokers have commented that they don’t like the look of the new packs and also believe the taste of the cigarettes is worse, even though the tobacco companies have confirmed that the product is the same,” reports Lindorff. “This proves just how powerful packaging is in conveying messages about supposed quality and features of a certain brand.”

Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing

Challenge to the tobacco industry

The tobacco industry has taken high profile, aggressive measures against the Australian legislation, but these have not been a deterrent. In August 2012, Australia’s High Court dismissed constitutional challenges brought by tobacco companies, awarding costs in favour of the Australian Government. Further legal challenges are pending in the World Trade Organization and under the Australia-Hong Kong Bilateral Investment Treaty.

WHO actively supported Australia’s pioneering tobacco control measure and is standing firmly behind all countries that face intimidation from big tobacco.

The plain packaging experience in Australia is being watched closely by other countries. New Zealand has announced its intention to introduce similar legislation and France, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the European Union are also considering tougher packaging laws for tobacco products.

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