Clear The Air News Tobacco Blog Rotating Header Image

Tobacco industry can butt out over plain-packaging rules

sweetman graphic

Source: The Courier-Mail

WHAT do you see in Imperial Tobacco’s Nanny State advertisements?

You’re supposed to see an overbearing, officious, unelected power bitch who’s going to boss you around, subject you to a full body search and whip you into submission with the lash of legislative pettifoggery.

I see the confected face of entrenched corporate arrogance trying to tell my nation what it can and can’t do.

I see a nameless woman as guardian of a boardroom door behind which sit the representatives of a vastly profitable multinational – and marvellously anachronistically named – company trying to defy the will of the Australian Government.

I imagine a room full of corporate suits who want to retain the right to use their last remaining advertising window to sell their products.

Having failed to bluff enough political friends to block legislation for plain packaging, they are now taking legal action and appealing directly to the people on the grounds that it is a misappropriation of intellectual property and descent into tyranny.

People are nodding sagely over tobacco rights and “nanny state” has become a pejorative term like “political correctness”.

Phillip Morris, flagbearer for an industry whose products are calculated to cost the Australian economy about $32 billion a year, is seeking more billions in compensation.

It would have us cry over the devaluation of its trademark while many of us are grieving the more than 15,550 tobacco-caused deaths a year.

It is waving the stick of punitive compensation when we are collectively footing the bill for a habit responsible for nearly 10 per cent of the national disease and injury burden for Australian men and nearly 6 per cent for women.

An industry that has never paid due compensation for the grief it has caused wants compensation from the same country that has largely footed the bills for its actions.

A United States company is suing our Government to bring a case through an international tribunal via the litigious gateway of an obscure investment treaty signed with Hong Kong in 1991.

That must surely be the punchline to a black historical joke that began when native Americans convinced visiting Europeans that sucking tobacco smoke into their lungs was a good thing to do.

The tobacco lobby may have been emboldened by the success of the mining industry in watering down the resource tax but it is finding it difficult to similarly tart up self-interest as national interest.

Apart from some disputed employment claims, the tobacco industry offers nothing we couldn’t well do without. Under the plain-packaging rules, it will retain the right to sell its products and its individual brand names but it will be restricted in how it markets them and attracts new users.

Sceptics scoff at the potential effectiveness of the move but changing habits since the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act of 1992 ended overt advertising suggest it is worth toning down the covert advertising of the cigarette packet.

The industry is undoubtedly paying a price for social and scientific progress but not an excessive price when you consider its products killed an estimated 100 million people last century (according to The Independent on Sunday).

It has been trying to shirk its responsibility since the link between tobacco and cancer was first noted in the 1930s.

“What company would stand for having its brands taken away from them?” asked one British American Tobacco spokesman. “A large brewing company or fast-food chain certainly wouldn’t and we’re no different.”

But it is different for the simple reason that its product is demonstrably unsafe at any level of consumption.

Why is the industry fighting so hard for its market in Australia, a country that has been hostile territory for nigh on 20 years?

The online resource www. says sales of tobacco products totalled $10.1 billion in 2006-07, representing about 5 per cent of all retail sales in Australia.

Nice, but small beer when you take into account the $41 billion profit for Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco in 2009.

The West accounted for a decline in world consumption in 2009, in no small part due to the sorts of initiatives Australia has been pioneering. The developing world, which accounts for 76 per cent of consumption, is the promised land for an industry that will go to any lengths to protect its territory (Phillip Morris is reportedly suing Uruguay for damages over bans on smoking in public places and for putting health warnings on its cigarette packets).

Australian initiatives are being copied in addicted nations and countries such as Britain, Canada and the US are watching the plain-packaging move with much interest.

“What’s to stop this same law being applied in other parts of the world?” asked Australian National University marketing expert Andrew Hughes.

The tobacco industry is asking precisely the same question.

Australia, it seems, can make a difference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>