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Tobacco industry claims snubbed out

24 Jun 2014

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has condemned The Australian newspaper for promoting discredited tobacco industry claims that plain packaging laws are not working.

A/Professor Owler called on The Australian and other media outlets to stop giving the tobacco industry a “free ride”, saying official figures contradicted manufacturer claims that cigarette sales had increased since the introduction of plain packaging laws, and instead showed consumer spending on cigarettes and other products had slumped to its lowest level on record.

Debate about plain packaging laws has been reignited, with two Government backbenchers telling The Australian the legislation should be revisited as part of a push against Government intervention in people’s lives, and Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash reserving her judgement on the issue.

In the latest phase of its global campaign to prevent other countries from following Australia’s lead and adopt plain packaging, cigarette companies have asserted that the volume of tobacco sales has climbed marginally by 0.3 per cent since the introduction of plain packaging in late 2012, casting doubt over the effectiveness of the measure.

But A/Professor Owler said the smoking debate was “not about politics or ideology, it is about life and death”.

He said the latest official gross domestic product data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics told a sharply different story, showing the amount spent on tobacco products had slumped 5.3 per cent since plain packaging was introduced, dropping to $3.298 billion in the first three months of this year – the lowest level since records began in 1959.

Backing his argument, the Health Department last week released figures showing tobacco clearances (which reflect tobacco imports) fell by 3.4 per cent last year, the first full year since tobacco plain packaging was introduced.

Far from being a failure, A/Professor Owler said, the figures and other research demonstrated the effectiveness of plain packaging in helping control tobacco consumption – a point reinforced by the vast resources the tobacco industry was throwing into its campaign to have the laws overturned in Australia and blocked elsewhere.

“The tobacco companies attack plain packaging because it is working, and they do not want other countries following Australia’s lead,” he said. The ground-breaking tobacco plain packaging laws, which were supported by both sides of politics, put Australia at the forefront internationally in the battle against smoking.”

The fight against plain packaging has developed into the biggest trade dispute in the history of the World Trade Organisation.

A three-member panel appointed by the WTO has begun hearings into complaints from five tobacco producing countries that Australia’s plain packaging laws breach international trade obligations on the protection of intellectual property. So far, 35 other countries have joined the dispute as third parties, concerned about its implications for the ability of countries to take public health measures.

Among the claims being made by industry is that, instead of giving up the habit, smokers are instead swapping to cheaper brands. A report in The Australian cited a report by research firm InfoView showing that the market share of cheaper cigarettes had climbed by 32 to 37 per cent since plain packaging was introduced.

But a study of plain packaging undertaken by Sir Cyril Chantler on behalf of the United Kingdom Government found that the phenomenon of smokers trading down to cheaper cigarettes was the continuation of a well-established market trend.

While admitting there were limitations to the evidence about the likely effect of plain packaging on tobacco consumption, Sir Cyril found industry arguments that it would make cigarettes cheaper and drive the market in illicit tobacco unconvincing.

“Having reviewed the evidence, it is in my view highly likely that standardised packaging would serve to reduce the rate of children taking up smoking, and implausible that it would increase the consumption of tobacco. Branded packaging plays an important role in encouraging young people to smoke,” Sir Cyril concluded.

“I am satisfied that the body of evidence shows that standardised packaging, in conjunction with the current tobacco control regime, is very likely to lead to a modest but important reduction over time on the uptake and prevalence of smoking, and thus have a positive impact on public health.”

Adding to the pressure on the tobacco industry, the Irish Government has endorsed tobacco plain packaging legislation, making it the first country in the European Union to move to adopt the measure, and only the third country – behind Australia and New Zealand.

If enacted, the Irish legislation would remove all forms of branding from tobacco packaging, except for the brand and variant name in a uniform typeface.

Tobacco companies have indicated they will challenge the legislation, but Dr Pat Doorley of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland told The Irish Times the initiative would prevent younger people from taking up smoking.

“A study conducted by the Irish Cancer Society and the Irish Heart foundation indicates that teenagers find plain packaging less appealing,” Dr Doorley said.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 24 Jun 2014