Professor Jane Halton

Why cigarettes are now sold in Australia in plain brown packages with disturbing pictures

Since 1 December 2012, despite the best attempts of the tobacco industry, all tobacco products sold in Australia have been available only in drab dark brown packaging with just a name in standard font to distinguish one brand from another.

The successful implementation of plain packaging by Australia has provided a precedent which is reverberating around the world. Australia's highest court has upheld the tobacco plain packaging legislation in a six-to-one decision, throwing out the tobacco industry's long-standing claim that such legislation would be unconstitutional.

It is not really a surprise that this latest step forward in the public health fight against the devastation caused by smoking has been made by Australia, a world leader in effective tobacco control. A major step was taken in the mid-1970s, when all tobacco advertising was banned from television. Since then, bans on the marketing and advertising of tobacco products have steadily expanded, together with bans on smoking in a range of public places. At the same time, increasing health warnings on packs have urged smokers to quit and young people to avoid the habit.

As a result of these and other measures, rates of smoking in Australia are now among the lowest in the world. However, in 2011-12 there were 2.8 million Australians aged 18 years and over who smoked daily (16.3 per cent of that age group). Smoking kills an estimated 15,000 Australians each year and costs the Australian eco-nomy and society an estimated Aus$31.5 billion (US$33 billion) each year. Plain packaging is neither a new nor a radical idea. Guidelines under the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control recommend implementing plain packaging. Australia is one of more than 170 Parties to the Convention, which came into force in 2005.

In 2009, the Australian Government was working on health reform plans that included establishing a National Preventative Health Taskforce to develop a strategy to make Australia the healthiest nation by 2020. Among its key recommendations were eliminating 'the promotion of tob-acco products through design of packaging' and bigger, graphic health warnings on tobacco packets.

At the end of April 2010, the Australian government announced that it would go ahead with legislation to impose plain packaging of tobacco products, as part of a suite of anti-smoking measures and legislation enacted in December 2011.

The tobacco industry first attacked the proposal in TV, radio and print media adv-ertising, social media, cards inserted into cigarette packs, and thousands of postcards sent to MPs. It flooded the Department with time-consuming Freedom of Information requests.

Then the tobacco companies lodged their High Court challenge, claiming that the legislation contravened Australia's constitution by acquiring intellectual property, including trademarks, without just compensation. The court's ruling that this was not true was decisive.

The new packs have no logos, brand ima-gery, colours or promotional text. The brand and product names are in a standard colour, position, font style and size. The packs are drab dark brown with a matt finish, with standard shapes and openings, and most of the front and back are covered with colour images of the health effects of smoking, such as lung cancer.

So far, the public response has been enc-ouraging. More smokers have sought help through Quit lines, indicating the new packaging may have given them a final push to quit. Some smokers have claimed that their cigarettes taste different, alth-ough nothing has changed except the packaging. Smokers are even trying to conceal the new packaging with slip-on covers, stickers and cases, showing that the new, larger health warnings are having an impact.

The anti-smoking push is supported by other measures. The price of tobacco products jumped in April 2010 with a 25 per cent increase in the tobacco excise, internet advertising of tobacco products in Australia is now restricted, the cost of nicotine replacement therapies has been cut by government subsidies, and more than Aus$135 million (US$140 million) is being spent on anti-smoking social marketing campaigns.

The tobacco industry's intense reaction to plain packaging suggests that it agrees that removing one of the last remaining forms of tobacco advertising in Australia will have the intended effect.

Professor Jane Halton is Secretary, Australian Department of Health and Ageing


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