AUSTRALIA’S pioneering plain tobacco packaging legislation, which was fully implemented 2 years ago, is the single most important piece of tobacco legislation ever introduced.
I reached this conclusion while doing research for my book*, covering the history of the idea, its implementation and impact, and the global apoplexy in the tobacco industry.
Experienced tobacco control advocates have long spoken of the “scream test” of policy impact — if a new policy gets no reaction from the tobacco industry it rarely has an impact, but if the industry screams blue murder the impact will be large.
With plain packs, the screams are still being heard.
In forecasting the impact, the industry and its supporters from the outset seemed intent on imitating the mythical creature from Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books, the pushmi-pullyu. This was the two-headed beast that tried to move in opposite directions at the same time.
For example, the astroturfed Alliance of Australian Retailers (bankrolled by the tobacco industry) ran a multimedia campaign asserting that plain packs “would not work”, meaning they wouldn’t reduce sales.
This refrain was megaphoned at every opportunity. However, it created a small problem for another central plank of the industry’s case — at the other end of the pushmi-pullyu — because the British American Tobacco-funded Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) was warning that plain packaging would reduce sales by up to an unprecedented 30% in the first year and by further 30% tranches in every year after that.
Nothing in the history of tobacco control has ever had such an impact. A back-of-an-envelope calculation shows that starting with an annual consumption of 24 032 million cigarettes and cigarette equivalents in 2010‒2011, and reducing this by 30% every year, by 2020 consumption would have fallen to just 969.4 million sticks — just 4% of the starting point.
The IPA confidently predicted that the High Court would order the government to compensate the companies concerned for all of this massive loss — $3 billion a year was the scary, big number it chose.
After being humiliated in the High Court by a 6:1 judgment, the industry quickly moved the pushmi-pullyu beast out of sight into a back paddock and put all its efforts into three main arguments.
They were that (1) the packs were not causing any reduction in sales; but (2) they were driving smokers down-market to buy cheaper brands with lower profit margins for manufacturers and retailers; and (3) the illicit market was booming, all because of plain packaging.
Laughable figures were strewn about by a panicked industry claiming that one in six cigarettes smoked in Australia were purchased illicitly under-the-counter. Ordinary smokers knew where to buy these, but the hapless federal police and customs, with all their resources and intelligence, didn’t.
In July 2014, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released the results of its latest national survey of tobacco use. These surveys have been conducted every 3 years since 1991, when 24.3% of Australians aged 14 years and over smoked on a daily basis.
In November 2013, just 12.8% of adults smoked daily. With another 3% smoking less than daily, Australia now has the lowest smoking rate in the world at just 15.8%. The percentage fall in Australia between 2010 and 2013 was a record 15.5%. The average percentage decline across the nine triennial surveys since 1991 had been 7.6%, with the previous biggest fall being 11%.
My book, coauthored by public health researcher Dr Becky Freeman, forensically reviews the claims of the tobacco industry about plain packaging, and the steady stream of evidence that has been published evaluating its impact. Nine other nations are already at various stages in their plans to introduce plain packs.
Tobacco is an exceptionally deadly product, and this important legislation seems destined to drive a lethal stake into the still-beating heart of tobacco marketing and promotion.
Professor Simon Chapman AO is professor of public health at the University of Sydney. On Twitter@Simonchapman6
*The book Removing the emperor’s clothes: Australia and tobacco plain packaging will be published by Sydney University Press this week and will be available as a free e-book from 26 November.