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October 13th, 2010:

British American Tobacco set to spook politicians on blackmarket tobacco

Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health, University of Sydney             13/10/10

The tobacco industry has much to lose with plain packaging. So far it’s put a match to three consecutive failures to explode. First we had the widely ridiculed effort from a BAT sponsored PWC report in February to convince Canberra than one in eight cigarettes smoked in Australia today were blackmarket, duty-not-paid.  Then we had the embarrassing efforts of the IPA to argue that that it would all end in big tears in court when the tobacco industry would successfully sue the government. Most recently, we saw the recent rapidly aborted TV campaign trying to convince us that plain packaging “would not work” (which is why the industry was spending A$5m to tell us that).

The next wave of the  tobacco industry’s panicked assault on plain packaging of tobacco products is about to commence with a DVD, now on British American Tobacco’s website about to be mailed to all MPs. The 6m52s high production video dramatises the lines that display bans (now adopted by over 40 nations), plain packs, tax increases and banning additives will all contribute to crime, terrorism and prostitution. It’s got everything from a cheesy script, an eastern European drug dealer stereotype (Middle Eastern might have been too much!), gormless, idealistic, and clueless European Union bureaucrat and shifty English bad guy.

The entire premise is that these control measures will be manna from heaven for organised crime: “Plain packs – easy for us to copy .. no logos to match .. easier to counterfeit .. lots more profit” says a fingernail removing Budapest crime boss from the back of a limo.

Copying branded packs has never been a barrier to tobacco counterfeiters. On the streets of many chaotic low and middle income nations, they are openly sold in shops and through street vendors because of chaotic law enforcement and corruption .  I recently edited a research paper from Tehranshowing that 21% of cigarettes are smuggled there.

But that’s not remotely the situation in Australia nor most OECD nations. Forecasts of massive black markets assume that smokers will be able to access these products with the ease that they today are able to buy cigarettes from every second shop. But if your ordinary smoker in the suburbs is able to so easily locate blackmarket tobacco, what would be stopping the police from doing exactly the same if it’s all so easy? All smokers reading this ask yourselves how easy would it be for you to access illegal tobacco products this afternoon. Most would not have a clue because it’s actually quite hard to find.

As I argued in Crikey in February, the obvious answer is that blackmarket tobacco is not flourishing in Australia. The tobacco industry campaign is bluster from start to finish because it knows fully well the this is the biggest Armageddon that will ever rain down on it, consigning tobacco promotion’s last bastion to history.  Plain packs passes the scream test with flying colours. When the industry applauds or ignores an initiative, it’s time for a rethink. But when it behaves like it’s about to haemorrhage sales, you’re on target.