The Australian leads its story on the Rudd Government’s plans for plain packaging of tobacco products with an adjective to delight the tobacco industry, describing it as “the world’s most draconian anti-smoking laws”.

Meanwhile, public health experts are enthusing wildly about the announcement (more reports here from the ABC and here from the SMH).

The Public Health Association’s statement quotes its president, Professor Mike Daube, who chaired the National Preventative Health Taskforce’s tobacco committee, describing the “landmark” move as a “massive win for public health”.

“This makes Australia the world leader in tobacco control, and will add a crucial contribution to the decline in smoking,” he said.

“This is the most important national development in tobacco control since tobacco advertising was banned in the 90s. It is hard to overstate the importance of this measure, which removes the last crucial location for tobacco promotion, especially to children. It sends out a massive signal that cigarettes are on the way out.”

Another tobacco control campaigner, Professor Simon Chapman, who is also hitting the airwaves to praise the move, has tweeted that it is “massive global news”.

Chapman and his University of Sydney colleagues Becky Freeman and Matthew Rimmer published an article in the journal Addiction last year, calling for such a move. You can download the article in full here; it is the one titled: The case for the plain packaging of tobacco products.

Freeman says: “I echo the optimistic sentiments of my colleagues by saying this is is a red letter day for public health! This is a world first that will undoubtedly be rolled out in other countries who follow Australia’s lead.

“It is indisputable that advertising and marketing tobacco products promotes both smoking uptake and tobacco consumption. Every time a cigarette pack is sold, taken out of a handbag, shared around a huddle of smokers, or even tossed on the pavement, the pack itself serves as a mini portable advertisement.

“The modern cigarette pack is not simply a cardboard box designed to hold your smokes. Metallic finishes, unique shapes, bevelled edges, bright colours, printing on the outer film, textured paper, holograms – the list goes on. Cigarette pack design is highly researched and designed with specific target audiences in mind. Rest assured no sales demographic is calling out for a purely functional pack covered in vivid health warnings.

“The industry has a long track record of vigorously opposing any measure that seeks to regulate packaging. And really, why wouldn’t they? Packages act as a “silent salesmen” and allow smokers, especially newer, younger smokers – to signal their social identity to the world. Are you an urban fashionista? Wealthy with discerning tastes? Just a regular bloke? There is a cigarette pack designed especially for you.

“Tobacco industry insiders long ago admitted that “one of every two smokers is not able to distinguish in blind (masked) tests between similar cigarettes …for most smokers and the decisive group of new, younger smokers, the consumer’s choice is dictated more by psychological, image factors than by relatively minor differences in smoking characteristics.”

“Since the 1970’s, Australia has progressively banned tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Regulating the cigarette pack is simply an extension of this exceptionally successful legislation. January 2012 can’t come soon enough.”

Meanwhile, here is the relevant extract from the National Preventative Health Taskforce’s report:

“In Australia and other countries that have already banned traditional forms of tobacco marketing, packaging has become a cornerstone of marketing strategy. Brand names and package design enable the communication of personal characteristics, social identity and aspirations,[90] and are a crucial aspect of marketing tobacco products.[91, 92] Market-testing studies show that package design – through the use of varying colour and other design elements – induces smokers to expect, and then actually experience, their cigarettes to be lower strength, lower in tar and lower in health risk than exactly the same cigarettes presented without this packaging.[93, 94] These misperceptions are part of the constellation of modifiable tobacco marketing factors that make smoking easier to take up and harder to quit.

As noted above, there can be no justification for allowing any form of promotion for this uniquely dangerous and addictive product which it is illegal to sell to children. ‘Plain packaging’ entails prohibiting brand imagery, colours, corporate logos and trademarks, and permitting manufacturers only to print the brand name in a mandated size, font and place, in addition to required health warnings and other legally mandated product information such as toxic constituents, tax-paid seals or package contents. A standard cardboard texture would be mandatory, and the size and shape of the package and cellophane wrapper would also be prescribed. A detailed analysis of current marketing practices[92] suggests that regulations prescribing plain packaging would also need to encompass pack interiors and the cigarette itself, given the potential for manufacturers to use colours, bandings and markings, and different length and gauges to make cigarettes more ‘interesting’ and appealing. Any use of perfuming, incorporation of audio chips or affixing of ‘onserts’ would also need to be banned.

Consumer research indicates that decreasing the number of design elements on the package reduces its appeal and perceptions about the likely enjoyment and desirability of smoking. [95] Requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging would reinforce the idea that cigarettes are not an ordinary consumer item. It would also reduce the potential for cigarettes to be used to signify status. Plain packaging would increase the salience of health warnings: research subjects show an improved ability to recall health warnings on plain packs.[96-98]

Guidelines for implementation of Article 11 adopted by the WHO’s Conference of the Parties to the FCTC state:

Parties should consider adopting measures to restrict or prohibit the use of logos, colours, brand images or promotional information on packaging other than brand names and product names displayed in a standard colour and font style (plain packaging).[99]

Shareholder nervousness[100] and industryopposition to restrictions on pack design are a strong indication of the importance of packaging to tobacco sales.[101]

‘In our opinion, [after taxation] the other two regulatory environment changes that concern the industry the most are homogenous packaging and below-the-counter sales. Both would significantly restrict the industry’s ability to promote their products.’ Morgan Stanley Research (2007)[102]

Threatened legal challenges from tobacco companies also testify to the importance they attach to packaging as a promotional mechanism. Given that trademark law is aimed at protecting broader public interests and doesnot provide for absolute private property rights, plain packaging isjustifiable, proportionate and not inconsistent with international trade agreements. International agreements provide flexibilities and exceptions to protect public health.

The industry has argued that plain packaging would make it easier to counterfeit cigarette packets. However, this need not be the case. Strategies proposed in the FCTC’s draft protocol to combat illicit trade include the mandating of tax markings that would make cigarette packages extremely difficult to counterfeit.”

Update: Meanwhile, you can also read Freeman and Chapman at the National Times.

Update: The Government’s announcement is here.

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