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
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.