Ignore big tobacco's absurd
fight against plain packs
02 May 2011 by Simon Chapman
Time to pack it in (Image: Alan Pryke/Newspix/Rex Feature)
Australia's bold plan to remove all branding from cigarettes and their packaging is a triumph for public health
EARLIER this month the Australian government released draft legislation that promises to be a landmark in the global fight against tobacco. If passed, from January 2012 cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco will have to be sold in plain, unappealing olive-brown packs plastered with large, graphic health warnings. The only thing distinguishing one brand from another will be the name written in a standard font on the top, bottom and front of the pack, below the health warning. This is a world first.
The legislation also proposes that cigarettes themselves should be completely plain. That means no branding, no coloured or flavoured papers, no gold-banded filters and no different gauges like slimline and mini cigarettes.
With this bill, the Australian government is sending out an unambiguous message that cigarettes are exceptionally dangerous. Future generations will grow up never having seen the finely crafted elegance of a cigarette box sitting alongside confectionary and groceries in their local shop.
The health minister Nicola Roxon signalled her intention to introduce the bill a year ago and since then the tobacco industry has repeatedly demonstrated why the government is on exactly the right track. It has poured an estimated $10 million into a proxy campaign against the plan, knowing its own credibility is too low to mount an open one. National media advertising from the hitherto unheard of "Alliance of Australian Retailers" - funded by British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and Imperial Tobacco - featured down-to-earth shopkeepers asserting that plain packs "won't work, so why do it?" and that there was "no real evidence" to support the policy (a line repeated by the opposition party's health spokesman Peter Dutton). Many Australians are left wondering, if it won't work, why is the industry bothering to waste its money campaigning so hard against it?
It is true that no nation has ever introduced plain packs, so arguments for the new policy cannot be drawn from direct evidence. This has become a centrepiece of tobacco industry opposition - a modern example of satirist F. M. Cornford's 1908 Principle of the Dangerous Precedent: "Every public action which is not customary either is wrong, or if it is right it is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time."
The central impetus for plain packaging has been acres of tobacco industry internal documents and unabashed advertising in industry trade magazines highlighting the importance of the pack as the frontline of tobacco promotion, particularly in an era when tobacco advertising bans are growing exponentially. As a 1999 article in World Tobacco (vol 170, p 16) advised: "if your brand can no longer shout from billboards, let alone from the cinema screen or the pages of a glossy magazine... it can at least court smokers from the retailer's shelf, or from wherever it is placed by those already wed to it".
A 1985 industry document similarly explained: "If you smoke, a cigarette pack is one of the few things you use regularly that makes a statement about you. A cigarette pack is the only thing you take out of your pocket 20 times a day and lay out for everyone to see. That's a lot different than buying your soap powder in generic packaging." A cover story of the trade magazine Tobacco Journal International spelled it out even more clearly in 2008: "Plain packaging can kill your business."
Investment advisors Morgan Stanley advised tobacco industry clients in 2007 that "the other two regulatory environment changes [after taxation] that concern the industry... most are homogenous packaging and below-the-counter sales. Both would significantly restrict the industry's ability to promote their products."
Internal industry documents show that many smokers cannot identify their own brand without the packaging and experimental evidence has found that when branding is removed from cigarette packs, people perceive them to be less appealing, have more negative expectations of cigarette taste and rate attributes of a typical smoker of the pack less positively.
Within hours of the announcement, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco declared they would challenge the decision in courts and seek billions in compensation on the grounds of "seizure of intellectual property". The government's own advice is that the legislation will survive the challenge, a position supported by senior legal commentators. Mark Davison, professor of law at Monash University in Victoria, described the industry's argument as "so weak, it's non-existent". He told The Australian newspaper: "There is no right to use a trademark given by the WTO [World Trade Organization] agreement. There is a right to prevent others using your trademark but that does not translate into a right to use your own trademark."
With the proliferation of tobacco advertising bans, generations of children are growing into adulthood having never been exposed to tobacco promotions. In Australia, no child under 17 has ever seen direct tobacco advertising, and the number of both young and adult smokers is the lowest on record. In effectively extending the ban on tobacco advertising to packs, the Australian government is simply finishing the job.
Policy domino effects are routine in global tobacco control and this historic decision may bring down the curtain on a century of the tobacco industry presenting its carcinogenic, addictive products in thoroughly market-researched, beguiling packs. When the history of the rise and fall of tobacco-caused disease is written, it will note this momentous initiative.
Simon Chapman is a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, Australia
Copyright New Scientist 2011