Simon Chapman: tobacco lobby loses its puff

Wednesday, 9 January 2013  at 09:46

Over a month since the new Australian Plain Packaging laws came into affect Simon Chapman looks at what effects they are having. Featuring in The Age, Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney writes:

Whiff of desperation as tobacco lobby loses its puff over packaging 


Australia's historic plain packaging became law on December 1, with the quinella seeing us graduate to also have the world's largest graphic health warnings. Sixty-four nations have now made the unforgettable pictures law and six (New Zealand, Britain, France, Norway, Turkey and India) are already showing strong interest in following our lead on plain packs.

The bad news about smoking and disease trickled in from the first decades of last century. With three major studies on smoking and lung cancer published in the early 1950s, in 1957, Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council wrote to the minister for health urging that the government should "warn non-smokers against acquiring the habit of smoking". But in the face of industry opposition, it would take another 16 years before the first timid warning appeared in tiny lettering at the base of Australian packs. Since then, there have been four further generations of warnings, culminating with plain packaging in 2012.

The tobacco industry strongly resisted all of these. A British American Tobacco official wrote to the German branch office in 1978: "Obviously the group policy should be to avoid health warnings on all tobacco products for just as long as we can." The industry threw everything it could at plain packaging: millions of dollars in hysterical TV advertising, a forlorn High Court challenge that was supported by just one of the seven judges, a conga-line of political threats from obscure US trade groups. The slippery slope metaphor was given its biggest ever workout: life as we know it would surely soon collapse entirely into dreary North Korean conformity as anything posing even the smallest risk would be treated the same as tobacco.

I'd seen all the pack prototypes and research that showed which warnings generated most concern in smokers. But nothing prepared me for how bad the real things actually look. No other consumer product in history has ever been packaged like this, underscoring the exceptional status of tobacco as a killer product. Early signs are promising. Stories are pouring in about negative reaction by smokers. A colleague's hairdresser told her she was quitting as she was too ashamed to be seen with the packs. A West Australian tobacconist estimated that a quarter of his customers were remarking that their usual cigarette now tasted worse in the new packs. Marketing gurus have been writing about how predictable this effect is.

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* This number reflects the total amount of people who have signed up to support the plain packaging of tobacco products, via the Plain Packs Protect Partnership (logos below), British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK websites.
Supporters Smoke Free South West Ulster Cancer Foundation ash Ash Scotland Ash Wales British Heart Foundation Cancer Research UK Chartered Institute of Environmental Health Cut Films Faculty of Public Health Fresh Smoke Free North East National Heart Forum NCSCT BTS - Stop Smoking Champions The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation Royal College of Physicians TCC Tobacco Free Future Trading Standards Partnership South West Smoke Free Lincs - Promoting a tobacco free life