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Australia has passed legislation – due to come into effect in December 2012 – to standardise all tobacco packaging, removing all branding and imagery. As the UK government consults on the future of tobacco packaging, Cancer Research UK asked Professor Simon Chapman for his perspective on the Australian experience. 

Cancer Research UK has launched “The Answer is Plain” campaign to raise awareness of the issue, alongside a hard-hitting short film that illustrates children’s attraction to the slickly designed cigarette packs.

Simon Chapman

Professor Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney

In the past 20 months, Australian news audiences have been exposed to some exotic, thought-to-be-extinct species on their screens and radios. After more than 15 years, the tobacco industry dodo is back and walking among us, attempting to fly.

Australia’s pioneering plain packaging legislation has brought them out into public, in a desperate effort to prevent the fall of a domino that promises to cascade globally, ending the industry’s centre-piece of tobacco promotion: the lure of the pack.

The University of California’s Stan Glantz once remarked that those who lead the tobacco industry are like cockroaches: “They love the dark and they spread disease.”

Ever since the magnesium glare unleashed by the public release of its internal private tobacco industry documents via the 1998 US Master Settlement Agreement, the industry has kept well out of public view, working behind the scenes to shore up its ebbing credibility.

The court of public opinion told them they were regarded as the most untrustworthy of all industries. Media appearances had become progressively humiliating as their spin was rejected.

But the truth serum contained in the millions of now public pages of court-ordered internal documents sealed their public fate. The industry always knew tobacco killed, but had lied about it for decades. Their marketing divisions had underlined the vital importance of recruiting youth, and their chemists had been busy working overtime to enhance the addictiveness of nicotine.

Australia’s historic plain cigarette packaging legislation is weapons-grade public health policy that is causing apoplexy in the international industry. It is likely to have little effect on heavily dependent smokers who tend to be brand loyal and less image conscious, but without branding, future generations will grow up never having seen category 1 carcinogens packaged in attractive packs.

Today’s Australian 20-year-olds have never seen local tobacco advertising, and youth smoking rates are at an all-time low. Plain packs will turbocharge this trend, making smoking history.

Tobacco is a dying market in nations like Australia which lead the world in comprehensive tobacco control. National data released in July show only 15.1 per cent are now smoking daily – the lowest ever recorded.

From the time that machine-manufactured cigarettes were first marketed at the beginning of the twentieth century, the advertising and packaging industries did all they could to portray cigarettes as a means of signaling personal identity to the young as they took up smoking. A callow youth who wouldn’t be seen dead with a menthol Alpine felt assured by the promise of masculinity in pulling out a packet of Marlboros.

Those not wanting the social opprobrium that can come with being showy had the iconic ordinariness of Winfield to clutch as their totem. Those wanting to affect retro stylishness have Peter Stuyvesant or Lucky Strike, and wannabes, any number of haute couture named brands – designer carcinogens.

But from December 1st 2012, all cigarettes will look the same, distinguished only by the brand and variant name in standard font.

The industry’s re-entry into policy debate has produced some high comedy. In advising government that plain packs will “not work”, it sought a role as a wise public health authority, when of course its fiduciary duty to its shareholders demands that it support policies which maximise use.

It has commissioned reports that purport to show that one in six cigarettes being smoked now are illicit, when the latest national survey reports that a mere 1.5 per cent of smokers use illegal tobacco more than half the time.

Most of all though, its blank cheque advertising campaigns, imploring the government to desist, say to anyone with half a brain that the industry knows plain packs will “kill their business”, as the cover story of a tobacco trade magazine put it in 2008. That’s precisely the plan.

Tobacco kills one in two of its long-term users. The tobacco industry’s current undisguised panic shows that plain packs will hit them very hard. If she were to do nothing else, Health Minister Nicola Roxon (now Attorney General) has marked her tenure with this historic legislation.

It will stand in public health history as a major chapter of how governments put the health of the population before the corporate interests of a pariah industry. Just one disease caused by smoking – lung cancer – was rare before 1930. Over the next 50 years, it rose to become the world’s leading cause of cancer death. In countries like Australia it is now on the wane.

Plain packaging will accelerate its eventual demise as a major cause of death.

You can sign up to support plain packs here.

Simon

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Comments

Menno May 13, 2012

I have been following this plain-packaging news with interest, and as a non-smoker with a serious dislike of smoking would very much welcome the day when no one would ever smoke again. I’m tired of having to dodge smokers on the pavement just to avoid getting a whiff of those cigarettes in my face, or having to move when enjoying my lunch on a park bench only for someone to sit down next to me and light up, or asking the man in my block who insists on lighting up in the enclosed stairwell to stop doing it. However, the reason I am writing is that I am not impressed with, what appears to me, the unbalanced view of CRUK in the plain packaging campaign, and also the language in this particular article, which you have decided to post and thus must support. I understand where you are coming from in terms of your campaign objectives, but to describe the entire tobacco industry as a ‘sleeping dodo’ is absurd – I’d be more inclined to think that they must be pretty frantic about legislation against branded packaging. A desperate dodo, maybe, but a sleeping one? The article also quotes tobacco industry leaders as being ‘like cockroaches’, which strikes me as extreme and fanatic, as if you are trying to make out they are some type of crazed evil child molesting monster out to get its dirty hands all over the young and get them hooked. Demonising any person or party is dangerous as it can lead to the loss of perspective and thus ignorance, which is my main beef with your campaign. I am all for educating people on the risks of smoking and especially children and young people, for this seems more like bullying to me, very one-sided. Not every smoker is a helpless addict, and not every person who takes up smoking has that to look forward to as their inevitable fate – the tobacco industry caters to a wide variety of people who smoke for a variety of reasons and I guess at varying levels of responsibility. I feel the plain packaging campaign punishes those. As a non-smoker, I am also quite fed up at having to look at those horrendous health warnings with images of cancerous lungs on packs either in shops or on the street, I find them sickening and would much rather look at a beautifully designed one. I also feel you are singling out the tobacco industry – why don’t you have such campaigns against manufacturers of ready meals or fast food chains whose unhealthy foods can clog up arteries and cause all sorts of health problems including bad-diet related cancers? Why is there no campaign for them to have photos of clogged up arteries on their packaging, or a child in a video saying something about an unhealthy ready meal targeted specifically at kids along the lines of “I would love to eat this because the pack looks like a fun storybook”? An industry manipulating its consumers for profits is NOT unique to the tobacco industry, but your portrayal of them, in my opinion, singles them out as the only ones who use this principle. If cigarettes are sold below the counter and out of sight, isn’t that enough? If a child sees a nice looking pack at home, I think they are going to me more enticed to smoke themselves because others in their home are smokers, not simply because the pack looks nice or cool or posh. I doubt a plain pack would put them of in the slightest if ‘mummy still smokes a pack a day’. The video of the children did not strike me as sincere either, it looked staged. I would have been more impressed if you had a campaign that focused on educating children on the risks of smoking, which I’m sure you have in one way or another. The things the kids said in the video were very predictable, and they’ll say the same things about unhealthy food and drink packaging, so my point is: I feel you are going too far with this campaign, and that your coverage on news and opinions is not balanced and fair, and thus manipulative, the very thing you are accusing the tobacco industry of being. If the power of packaging is your concern, you should target all types of products that rely on design tricks to ‘wrap up’ the consumer, not just one particular industry. There is also a possible side-effect that kids may actually want to smoke these cigarettes now because they are seen to be ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ out of a need to rebel or not conform. Instead of this video with the children, how about a video of parents or grandparents asking their children not to start? I remember there was a TV ad years ago where a crying child asked a parent to stop smoking; this way you could turn that around. Maybe a mother saying “Sweetheart, I know you’ve seen me smoking all my life, but there are a couple of reasons why I’d like to ask you not to take up smoking yourself…” Or a child playing with a pack asking his grandma with a picture of a cancerous lung: “Grandma, do your lungs look like this? If you know they are bad, why are you smoking them?” Or show how much money they would have to spend over the years if they were to smoke a certain amount of cigarettes a week, and what else that could have been spent on. “If you start smoking, you could be missing out on (footage of great holiday with friends), but you could be in for this (footage of a cancer patient in hospital)”. The plain packaging campaign I feel misses the point. OK, rant over, I would welcome any feedback, I guess the point of any campaign is to raise awareness and get people talking, so I’m talking, and hopefully not into a void.