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Plain packaging is tobacco packaging that is stripped of all promotional elements—no graphics, logos, colours, fancy fonts, or embellishments.

Elements of the packaging are also standardised, such as the size, shape, and opening style.

Although the precise regulations vary by country, what is striking is the similarity of the campaigns being waged by tobacco companies and their allies to prevent, weaken, or delay implementation. Indeed, on a recent speaking tour in Canada, former Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon called the arguments and tactics being used by the Canadian industry “spookily similar” to those used to try to undermine plain packaging in Australia.

In Australia, right after the government announced plain packaging, the tobacco industry went on the attack to an extent not seen in public for decades. They developed campaigns operating on multiple platforms, including print, radio, television and point-of-sale, framed, on multiple arguments:

1. There is no evidence that plain packaging will work.
2. Plain packaging will increase illicit tobacco use.
3. Plain packaging will hurt small retailers.
4. Plain packaging is a ‘slippery slope’.
5. Plain packaging violates Australia’s legal obligations.

Similarly, in Canada, where plain packaging is currently under development, the tobacco industry has recently launched a multi-front offensive against the reform under the very same broad themes.

In addition to the same campaign themes, tobacco companies are using identical tactics around the world to try to undermine plain packaging. Because they lack credibility, the companies rely heavily on third parties to carry their messages. In Australia, a vocal opponent was the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a right wing think tank. The IPA has re-surfaced during the Canadian campaign, with Sinclair Davidson, an IPA affiliate, doing a speaking tour across Canada this autumn on “The Unintended Consequences of Plain Packaging: Reflecting on Impacts in Australia.”

Retailer associations are key players in the fight against plain packaging.

In Australia a retailer front group, the Alliance of Australian Retailers (AAR), led the tobacco industry’s campaign.

In response, Australian health groups published a half-page ad in a major Australian newspaper to expose the AAR as a sham organization that was fully funded and controlled by tobacco companies.

Likewise, Canadian health groups working with supportive journalists succeeded in exposing the Canadian Convenience Stores Associations and its regional affiliates as key players in Imperial Tobacco Canada’s long-term strategy to prevent anti-tobacco regulation in Canada, including plain packaging.

In both Australia and Canada, key to protecting the government’s plain packaging initiative from industry interference has been civil society countering industry lies with the facts and exposing the companies’ strategies, including their use of front groups. Going forward, vigorous implementation of Article 5.3 guidelines will help countries implementing plain packaging to minimize industry interference in the policy-making process. This includes requiring “the tobacco industry and those working to further its interests to operate and act in a manner that is accountable and transparent” (Principle 3) and raising “awareness about the tobacco industry’s practice of using individuals, front groups and affiliated organizations to act, openly or covertly, on their behalf” (Recommendation 1.2).

The same pattern of industry behaviour and the same arguments have been seen in every country that has introduced plain packaging legislation (Ireland, the UK, France, New Zealand) and will undoubtedly be seen in every country to follow.

The application of Article 5.3 guidelines can help insulate this important reform from the undue influence of the industry and its allies.

Moreover, countries that are heading toward plain packaging can now draw upon a wealth of evidence and experience to support implementation.

Plain packaging works, and the tobacco industry knows it.

Melodie Tilson
Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, Canada

Kylie Lindorff
Cancer Council Victoria, Australia

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