If it is possible to hear someone grinning over the telephone, that’s what I heard today.

The person responsible for the sound signifying sheer delight was Professor Mike Daube, president of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA).

“I haven’t enjoyed a day as much since I discovered ice cream,” he said in reference to the tobacco industry’s strategic blunder that is hitting the headlines today (you can read what else Daube had to say at the bottom of this post).

In case you’ve missed the news, tobacco companies have bankrolled a new “alliance” of retailers to run an advertising campaign attacking the Federal Government plan for cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging from July 2012. This world-first move, announced in April, has attracted international public health acclaim.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported today, the new advertising blitz will argue that plain tobacco packaging will not prevent smoking but will instead hamper small businesses and cost jobs. The campaign will run under the auspices of what looks suspiciously like a front group , the newly formed Alliance of Australian Retailers, and is bankrolled by the three largest tobacco firms – British American Tobacco Australia, Philip Morris Australia and Imperial Tobacco Australia.

What were the tobacco industry strategists thinking?

Not only did they give Health Minister Nicola Roxon an opportunity to make some political mileage (especially given reports emphasising the role of former Howard Government advisors in the campaign), they have put Tony Abbott under immense pressure to commit his own side to supporting plain packaging.

For once the voices in the health sector have been singing in harmony. The PHAA, the Heart Foundation, Cancer Council Australia – and even the AMA – are on the same message: that Abbott must sign up to plain packaging.

If Abbott doesn’t take a strong stand, he risks looking like a friend of Big Tobacco. These days, that is not a good look for anyone, and particularly not for politicians at this point of the electoral cycle. The public has had decades of exposes about the industry’s nefarious tactics.

Actually, this AAP story from April records that Abbott has previously committed to plain packaging. On the Nine Network, when pressed by (then) Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard  on whether he would support both the tax on cigarettes and plain packaging, Mr Abbott conceded he would.  “Yes, Julia,” an exasperated Mr Abbott said.

Today, however,  he is only committing to “considering” plain packaging (so far as I have heard anyway.)

What were the industry strategists thinking? That it had worked for the miners, so it would work for them?

Meanwhile, back to Mike Daube, who says:

“This is the biggest and best own goal I have seen in nearly 40 years of tobacco campaigning.

This is a campaign by the tobacco industry posing behind an unbelievably inept front organisation that was only fabricated a couple of weeks ago.

They can’t get their lines straight (they think plain packaging won’t work, but they oppose them because they will reduce sales). They think profits for corner stores are more important than preventing 14,000 deaths a year and preventing kids from smoking. The international tobacco industry shows its respect for democracy by buying into a national election campaign. They provide massive opportunity for health groups to speak about the dangers of smoking. Above all, they show how desperately concerned the tobacco industry is about the advent of plain packaging.

So it would be hard to surpass as an object lesson in shooting yourself in the foot.”

Croakey continues:

Perhaps the PM and her health Minister should send the responsible tobacco executives a nice big bunch of flowers. Nicotiana, of course.

The Nicotiana flower
The Nicotiana flower

Meanwhile, on other health election issues…

The Greens health policy has much to recommend it. It stresses preventative care, primary health care, dental care and community-based mental health services, as well as developing health plans to respond to climate change, and addressing the social and economic factors that contribute to health inequities. They also would ban junk food advertising on children’s TV.

Policies are all very well and good, but do they have a hope of ever being translated into action?

We shall just have to wait and see. After all, the move to strip cigarettes of their branding glam was once seen as an ambit claim…

Update, 6 August: See what the new Cut Your Cancer Risk blog has to say on this issue.

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