Claims that plain packaging of tobacco products has failed and reports that some Liberal members are pushing to have the laws repealed, has re-ignited the debate on these regulations and the role of the so-called public health ‘nanny state’.

Writing in the Australian, journalist Christian Kerr stated that since the plain packing legislation was introduced in December 2012 “tobacco sales volumes increased by 59 million sticks” and also that there has been a “50 per cent rise in the market for lower cost cigarettes.”   On this basis Kerr argues that these figures undermine claims by then health minister Nicola Roxon that Australia would introduce the “world’s toughest anti-smoking laws”.

The figures were disputed by economist Stephen Koukoulas who argued that Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed that “total consumption of tobacco and cigarettes in the March quarter 2014 is the lowest ever recorded” and that “the consumption numbers are not adjusted for population growth which, by definition, means per capita consumption of tobacco and cigarettes is also at a record low.”

A number of public health experts, including Professor Simon Chapman who has (literally) written the book on the role of plain packaging in tobacco control, also disputed the figures and the claims that the policy had failed.  In a tweet Professor Chapman called Christian Kerr the “IPA’s spear carrier” and accused him of “drinking the carbolic”.  Australian Council on Smoking and Health president Mike Daube said the research was ”shonky and appalling”

Debate about the figures continues with one possibility being that while overall sales have decreased (on a per capita basis) those who do smoke have switched to lower cost brands and are smoking an increased number of cigarettes.

The dispute about the impact of the policy was one reason why I argued in Croakey for a trial of plain packaging in defined regions of the country before considering its introduction nationally (see the comments below the article for arguments against this approach).

The debate has also ignited discussions about the so-called ‘nanny state’ and whether or not public health measures undermine the autonomy of individuals and respect for their choices.   Again, Croakey has extensively covered this issue with a detailed analysis of the arguments here.  See also Simon Chapman’s piece in The Conversation for a public health perspective and (on the other side) a pre-election piece from Christian Kerr for the Institute of Public Affairs.

Whether you think the public health nanny is more Mary Poppins than the ‘Hand that rocks the Cradle’ (or even if you completely disagree with using this term at all), hopefully something we can all agree on is the importance of a robust public health debate and the need to make all relevant data available to stakeholders to inform the development of effective, evidence-based policies – and for this to happen sooner rather than later (or as Miss Poppins herself would say ‘spit spot’!)



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