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Australia hails plain packaging on tobacco

When Australia introduced plain packaging for tobacco products in December 2012, the industry funded an advertising campaign warning that smuggling would shoot up, retailers would go broke and the government would have to pay out millions in damages.

A little more three years later, and on the eve of the introduction in the UK of non-branded packs carrying prominent health warnings, Australia says the plain packaging experiment is working well.

“The measure has begun to achieve its public health objectives of reducing smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke in Australia and it is expected to continue to do so into the future,” concluded the government’s post-implementation report published in February.

The review said plain packaging and the enlarging of graphic health warnings on packs resulted in a “statistically significant” decline in smoking prevalence of 0.55 percentage points.

It accounted for a quarter of the 2.2-point decline in average smoking rates among Australians from 19.4 per cent to 17.2 per cent between the 34 months before plain packaging’s introduction and the 34 months afterwards.

“This reduction alone would result in at least 118,000 fewer smokers,” said Mike Daube, professor of health policy at Curtin University. But plain packaging was never seen as a magic bullet to stop people smoking, he added. Rather it was intended to deter young people from taking it up in the first place.

The report cited several studies that claim plain packaging is having a positive impact — reducing the appeal of tobacco products and the potential for packaging to mislead people, and enhancing the effectiveness of the health warnings.

It also references a big drop in consumption of tobacco products, down more than 20 per cent between the end of December 2012 and December 2015, while acknowledging limitations in the data and the short time that has passed since plain packaging has been in force.

The big tobacco companies and lobbyists dispute the findings of the government’s review, saying the evidence suggests smoking prevalence rates have not deviated from a historical downward trend.

Big tobacco has commissioned research that contradicts the findings of the review and is funding the Dominican Republic’s legal challenge to plain packaging at the World Trade Organisation. This challenge says the plain packaging measures “do not and will not change smoking behaviour in Australia”.

British American Tobacco said: “Australia remains the only country to date to have introduced plain packaging — and despite three years’ worth of data, is still no closer to demonstrating that plain packaging works to reduce smoking levels.

“Governments are ignoring the evidence that it does not work to reduce smoking levels — and this is why we are challenging the policy in the UK in the High Court of England and Wales.”

Plain packaging in the UK is due to come into effect on May 20, with the High Court set to rule on the legal challenge two days earlier.

The UK, France and Ireland have passed legislation to introduce plain packaging on May 20.

Dr Tasneem Chipty, who wrote the report, said smoking had indeed been falling in Australia for some time but added that the decline she had measured took this into account and was “beyond historical trend”.

“Suggestions . . . that the observed decline in smoking prevalence would have happened anyway, in the absence of plain packaging, are simply false,” she said.

So far the tobacco industry has lost challenges to Australia’s plain packaging law in the courts.

The last big hurdle for the law is the WTO, which is hearing complaints from Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Cuba. Those countries claim plain packaging violates WTO agreements by creating an unnecessary barrier to trade and by impeding the use of trademarks.

Tobacco companies also argue there is no evidence to suggest a link between the appeal of packs and smoking rates. They attribute any fall-off in tobacco consumption in Australia since December 2012 to increases in excise duty and other health education policies.

They also cite a KPMG study funded by the tobacco industry showing the consumption of illicit tobacco in Australia has risen to 14 per cent of the overall market from 11.5 per cent in 2012.

Proponents of the policy reject these arguments, saying big tobacco has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying against the measure is because it poses such a threat to their profits.

“Right from the beginning, plain packaging was the component of our anti-tobacco policies that the industry screamed the loudest about,” says Nicola Roxon, the former Labor party health minister who steered plain packaging legislation through the Australian parliament.

“It is no surprise that its effectiveness and the fact it is spreading around the world has them so worried.”

Ireland, France and New Zealand are among several countries committed to following Australia and the UK in introducing plain packaging.

Mr Daube says the industry is merely repeating the claims it made in Australia in its campaigns against plain packaging in the UK and elsewhere. “These arguments failed in Australia and they should not be allowed to become zombie arguments — killed off in one country only to be brought back to life in others,” he says.

“Plain packaging is the tobacco industry’s worst nightmare as it takes away their last marketing opportunity.”

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