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02 Mar 2015

The Federal Government has launched a review of the nation’s breakthrough tobacco plain packaging laws amid continued local and international efforts to have the anti-smoking measure overturned.

The Government has engaged consultants Siggins Miller to examine the effect plain packaging has had on the tobacco industry and consumers and, “where possible, quantify the costs and benefits of the measure”, with the information to be used as part of a post implementation review.

The review is a requirement of the Australian Government Office of Best Practice Regulation, and is intended to determine whether the law “remains appropriate”, and how effective and efficient it has been in reducing the appeal of tobacco products and discouraging smoking.

But the review comes against the backdrop of a concerted international campaign by the tobacco industry to have the Australian legislation overturned and prevent other countries from introducing similar laws.

Philip Morris Asia has launched a legal challenge against the legislation, claiming it breaches the terms of a 1993 investment agreement with Hong Kong.

The case represents the first time Australia has been subject to an investor-state proceeding.

The tobacco industry has also sought to undermine support for the laws by claiming they are driving an increase in the black market trade in cigarettes.

British American Tobacco Australia told The Australian newspaper last month it had discovered several counterfeit packets of cigarettes for commercial sale, and a KPMG study commissioned by the tobacco industry estimated illegal products comprised almost 14 per cent of the local market.

Several countries, including the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Cuba and Ukraine, have also launched action against Australia at the World Trade Organisation, claiming the plain packaging laws breach international trade obligations regarding intellectual property rights, in particular trademarks, and geographical indications.

Despite the multi-pronged assault, other countries are moving to introduce similar laws.

The British Government has said it wants to introduce plain packaging laws before the general election, meaning that could come into force as early as May 2016, while the Irish Government has so far resisted enormous pressure from the tobacco industry to dump planned plain packaging legislation.

Industry giants Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco have both threatened to launch legal action against the governments if they introduce plain packaging legislation, and the United States Chamber of Commerce wrote to Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny warning the bill will “expose the Irish State to higher costs from compensation” and “potentially violate important aspects of Ireland’s international commitments”.

But Big Tobacco may be fighting an uphill battle, with other countries already considering introducing similar laws, including New Zealand, France and India, while many European countries are watching the developments closely.

Evidence suggests plain packaging is working to help reduce the incidence of smoking, particularly in deterring young people from taking up the deadly habit.

The National Drugs Strategy Household Survey released last year found a dramatic decline in smoking rates had coincided with the introduction of plain packaging laws.

The daily smoking rate plunged from 15.1 per cent to 12.8 per cent between 2010 and 2013, according to the nation’s largest and longest-running survey on drug use. It found most people are now 16 years old before they smoke their first full cigarette, up from 14 years in 2010, and 95 per cent of 12 to 17-year-olds have never smoked.

The results have been claimed by public health experts as vindication for the effectiveness of the measure, and have undermined tobacco industry claims that they have had little effect on smoking rates.


Adrian Rollins

Published: 02 Mar 2015