Fight with Big Tobacco not over yet

Friday 27 March, 2015

By Todd Harper, Cancer Council Victoria CEO 

Pick up a tobacco industry media statement in the past three years and it would outline how plain packaging was a public health disaster. Such touching sentiments from an industry dedicated to championing public health in Australia.

Big Tobacco’s anguished concern for the public good is, of course, as genuine as a 12 cent piece.

The mood at Big Tobacco will be decidedly tense because the research is in. Just as the tobacco industry feared and just as public health champions had predicted, plain packaging legislation is working to reduce the appeal of tobacco products among smokers young and old.

This is another milestone in a battle against an industry that has been killing its customers for more than 50 years.

However, don’t think for a second that Big Tobacco is about to give up the fight. Not while there are still almost three million smokers in Australia, and more than one billion smokers world-wide. Plain packaging is the biggest threat to this industry’s long term health, which means they will stop at nothing to ensure legislation delays or defeats around the globe.

Thanks to the first “real world” evaluation, we now know that plain packaging does reduce the appeal of tobacco, increase the effectiveness of health warnings and result in more persistent quitting thoughts and quit attempts.

Australia has often led the way in advocating for policies that will encourage smokers to quit and discourage young people from taking up the deadly habit.

Former director of Cancer Council Victoria, the late Dr Nigel Gray AO, led moves to ban tobacco advertising on television and through sport. In the years following a ban on smoking indoors was introduced in all of our states and territories.

Graphic health warnings started appearing on packs in 2006, and in December 2012 Australia became the first jurisdiction in the world to legislate plain packaging for tobacco products.

While the evaluation of plain packaging in its first year validates Australia’s decision to introduce the legislation, it is not a signal to sit back, relax and take a breather.

Yes, smoking is on the decline, but despite our best efforts, two thirds of Australian smokers will die as a result of their habit. In my state alone almost 4000 Victorians are dying as a result of a smoking-caused illness every year.

Smoking also remains unacceptably high among people who are already facing social and economic disadvantage, including people who have a lived experience of mental illness, single parents or Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Victorians.

Far from easing off on tobacco control, I would argue that we need to be working harder than ever on policies and public education that makes it as easy as possible for smokers to quit, and stop young people from starting in the first place.

Take Victoria for example. Here we need to implement smokefree outdoor drinking and dining, and continue investment in public education and support services such as Quitline.

We also need to reduce the availability of tobacco. Victoria is one of only two states without a retailer licensing scheme to sell tobacco, meaning cigarettes are more readily available than a carton of milk. Restricting the availability of cigarettes is the key to further boosting quitting rates and cutting smoking-caused cancer deaths.

Globally, there is a longer and tougher battle ahead in tobacco control. The introduction of plain packaging legislation has reinvigorated the global movement to reduce smoking rates with Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Norway among the countries that have introduced or are investigating similar laws.

There are, however, many more countries where tobacco remains freely available and smoking rates are high. In China, for example, one in three adults (more than 300 million people) are smokers.

The marketing of cigarettes in countries that don’t yet have the same controls as we do is only set to increase as the tobacco industry tries to hang onto diminishing markets. The pack is one of the last pillars of tobacco industry marketing, and they will continue to use this as a powerful tool to keep and attract customers, particularly young people.

The effectiveness of Australia’s introduction of plain packaging should give other nations confidence that they too can defeat the tobacco industry.

Public health leaders must do all they can to work with their international colleagues to ensure evidence-based tobacco control measures are put in place around the globe. Last month, Cancer Council Victoria’s McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer delivered training and support to overseas lawyers and government representatives who want to protect their citizens against Big Tobacco.

We may be minnows compared to the tobacco industry with its enormous budgets but plain packaging has shown that with sound research, good policy and global partnerships we can compete with Big Tobacco and begin to avert millions of deaths around the world.