Issue 22 / 14 June 2016

OF all the accusations levelled at plain packaging of tobacco products, perhaps the most bizarre is that it will help promote the revival of the Irish Republican Army.

The once-prominent terrorist organisation stands to make an extra £22 million per year from smuggled cigarettes as a result of the Irish shift to plain packs, claims the Property Rights Alliance.

The Property Rights Alliance is also behind this new, and widely lampooned, ad about “the failed Australian experiment” with plain packaging (or, as the narrator pronounces it in what appears to be a failed attempt at an Australian accent, “exspeariment”).

As countries from the UK to Malaysia move towards plain packaging of tobacco products, proponents on both sides of the argument are examining what happened in Australia after we became the first country to introduce such measures in 2012.

Unsurprisingly, given the tobacco industry’s long-standing reputation for honesty and probity, there are some interesting interpretations of our experience out there.

In Australia, the industry attempted to rally retail outlets to support its campaign against the new regulations. They now appear to be trying to replicate that strategy elsewhere.

“Our retail counterparts in Australia describe the post-plain packaging era as a race to the bottom,” writes the Canadian Convenience Stores Association.

“After this measure was introduced, customers began purchasing and consuming cheaper cigarettes in higher quantities, with reports indicating an increase of as much as 50% in these products. Australian customers also began openly asking retailers where they could purchase cheaper tobacco, including from illegal sources.”

So the plain packs made customers go into convenience stores, not to buy cigarettes, but to ask staff where they could find a friendly local ciggie smuggler … seriously?

The allegation that plain packaging has somehow led to an increase in cigarette consumption crops up a lot.

Manufacturers have repeatedly made the claim that sales increased in the wake of the move.

Really? So that’s why they are now, with every emphysematic breath in their bodies, trying to stop the spread of plain packs around the globe? They don’t want the increased revenue?

It’s heartwarming to see the tobacco industry putting concern for public health ahead of profits in this way.

Happily, they can be reassured that their concerns about increased tobacco consumption are unfounded.

The federal government’s post-implementation review, released earlier this year, found continuing declines in smoking prevalence, with the rate of decline increasing significantly after the introduction of the generic packs.

Tobacco plain packaging was “achieving its aim of improving public health in Australia and is expected to have substantial public health outcomes into the future”, the review concluded.

But what of those concerns that generic packaging plays into the hands of criminals, encouraging smokers to seek out illegal cigarettes and making it easier to produce fake packs?

With current technology, it’s hard to see why it would be any easier to produce a counterfeit generic pack than a branded one, but leaving that aside, the industry will be happy to learn that this concern too can be put to rest.

A large national survey of Australian smokers, conducted 6 months before the introduction of plain packaging and again 15 months after, found no increase in the use of illicit cigarettes.

These kinds of misrepresentations of the Australian experience would come as no surprise to Professor Simon Chapman, who has long campaigned for stronger regulation of the tobacco industry.

In a book co-written with public health researcher Dr Becky Freeman, he documents the battle to get plain packaging over the line and the tobacco companies’ desperate efforts to stop it.

“The industry threw everything it could at the effort to stop plain packaging: millions of dollars in hysterical TV and other advertising, a forlorn High Court challenge that was rejected by all but one of the seven judges, intense public relations activity, a conga-line of melodramatic political threats and bluster from industry allies,” they write.

“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 when anything posing even the smallest risk to health was treated in the same way as tobacco.”

Ah, yes, as an Irish site puts it, plain packaging is just one more step towards the dreadful prospect of the nanny state.

“The treatment of smokers is setting a dangerous precedent … How long will it be before public health campaigners call for alcohol, fatty food, sugar or even confectionery to be sold in plain packaging?”

Take a deep breath, people. Drab cigarette packets are not going to lead to the banning of lollies, any more than they will to the incitement of terrorists.

But they might just help a few people to quit the toxic habit or, even better, never to start it in the first place.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medical writer.

3 thoughts on “Plain speaking on plain packaging

  1. Ulysses Dorotheo says:

    @Dr Joe: Plain/standardised tobacco packs also carry large pictorial health warnings. Plain packs of illicit drugs do not have any warnings at all.

  2. Sue Ieraci says:

    Strange comment, “Dr Joe”. I’ve not heard anyone claim that plain packaging would stop the hard-core, addicted smokers from smoking. There is evidence, though, that it affects uptake. And this happerns at no cost to the community. IF there were an easy way of discouraging uptake of illicit addictive drugs that cost the suppliers and not the community, and had the impact of plain packaging, we should do for it. Any suggestions?

  3. Joe Kosterich says:

    Fascinating how crystal meth, heroin and all other illicit drugs come in plain packaging and people stiil use them. Wonder how that happens? But lets not rain on the feel good parade of public health. 

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