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Winning the fight against Big Tobacco

Wednesday 2 November, 2016
By Todd Harper, CEO Cancer Council Victoria  

Facing legal action from the tobacco industry focusses the mind on what is important.

This is an industry responsible for six million deaths per annum globally. Its products are unique in killing two-thirds of its users when used as intended. This industry's very existence and its multi-billion dollar profits depend on recruiting children as smokers to replace the 15,000 Australians who die from smoking every year.

Using legal action to intimidate is a standard tool of the trade. As one tobacco industry lawyer noted money is no object, claiming they won their cases not by spending all of their money, "but by making that other son of a bitch spent all his".

Despite being up against these wealthy and unethical foes, Australia's success against them has been remarkable - fewer than 15% of adults smoke (smoking for men peaked at 72% after WW2) and only 5% of teenagers smoke today.

This feat has been built on the back of reforms that banned advertising, created smokefree environments, invested in public education programs through Quit and the Cancer Council, increased taxes and of course, the introduction of tobacco plain packaging.

It is four years since plain packaging was rolled out in Australia and its overwhelming success has Big Tobacco scrambling, leading them to fight back with legal challenges and Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to access sensitive information about children.

For more than 30 years, the Cancer Council has been surveying Australian children (with the consent of teachers, parents and children themselves) to ask about their smoking, alcohol and illicit drug use. This information is critical in understanding why children smoke, and what might make them more or less likely to start.

This survey was one of the first to show Australia's plain packaging laws were working, with children finding the new packs to be less appealing.

Research like this pricked attention globally as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand began contemplating their own plain packaging laws.

Desperate, British American Tobacco resorted to legal action through FOI laws to try and get its hands on the children's data collected by the Cancer Council.

Using FOI laws is an approach that's been used previously by Philip Morris to try and gain access to sensitive children's data from the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom. In that case, it was an expensive and time-consuming two years before the tobacco giant gave up on its attempts.

Similarly the Cancer Council has been defending such attempts from British American Tobacco for the past two years. The FOI process imposed on us by them has taken up valuable resources and the time of our world-class scientists who have been instrumental in demonstrating the success of plain packaging.

We considered turning over such sensitive children's data to a tobacco company would have been a breach of faith to parents, children and teachers who trusted us to collect and analyse the data, but also to keep it safe.

Despite these intimidation tactics it was important for us to continue our work to investigate the impact of plain packaging.

We've found that it has delivered on its aim to reduce the appeal of packs, particularly among adolescents and young adults, and new larger health warnings on packs have also increased adult smokers' attempts to quit.

Most recently, a study on the Victorian public's support of plain packaging and larger graphic health warnings has shown support remains high for the changes. Between 2011 and 2013, approval for plain packaging was high and unchanged at about 70% among former smokers, and at around 50% among current smokers, while disapproval of the new laws fell.

Australia's success has inspired confidence globally: Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and France have passed plain packaging legislation, while Norway, Hungary, Slovenia, Singapore and Canada have announced their intentions.

If those countries can emulate Australia's experience where we saw more than 100,000 less smokers in the first three years of plain packaging, then countless lives will be saved and heartbreak prevented for millions of families.

I'm proud to work for an organisation that has been prepared to fight back against Big Tobacco. In this case, our decision to prevent the tobacco industry's access to sensitive information has been vindicated with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal recently refusing British American Tobacco's request.

Thankfully, this time they have finally given up but past experience suggests the tobacco industry will not stop its efforts to undermine programs that save lives.

Hopefully, our research demonstrating that plain packaging is working will encourage other countries to stare down the tobacco industry as we have.

And that will make the last few years worth it.