Cigarette plain packaging milestone ‘icing on the cake’

Cigarette_plain_packaging_milestone _‘icing_on_the_cake’_full

Professor Rob Moodie describes the world's first cigarette plain packaging laws, enacted by the Australian Government on 1 December 2012, as "the icing on the cake" of tobacco control measures.

It took decades of hard work by seasoned health campaigners to assemble the cake's other ingredients: increasing the cost of tobacco via taxes, public education, smoke free legislation and health system interventions have all contributed to tobacco reform in Australia. 

Professor Moodie, Professor of Public Health at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, is supporting efforts to have this multi-pronged model emulated overseas in countries such as India, through the Australia India Institute Tobacco Control Taskforce, and in Thailand, through the South East Asian Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA). The international precedents Australia has set have worried 'Big Tobacco' companies, which unsuccessfully challenged the Australian Government's plain packaging laws in the High Court in 2012. 

Professor Moodie dates his direct involvement in anti-smoking campaigns back to 1998, when he became head of VicHealth, the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation. In acknowledging the plain package milestone, he pays tribute to the much longer-term efforts of colleagues such as Nigel Gray, David Hill, Michelle Scollo, Melanie Wakefield, Simon Chapman and Mike Daube, and the steadfastness of then federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon. 

"Plain packaging is very much part of a comprehensive program of tobacco control over 30 years. This approach has been cumulative and progressive and determined," he says. "Plain packaging is not a silver bullet but a very important feature, both from the view of taking away the last bastion of tobacco advertising and really reducing the potential appeal of smoking to young people, in particular." About 5% of 12-15 year-olds smoke, according to the Australian Secondary School Students Alcohol and Drugs Survey. 

Plain packaging was one of the recommendations of the National Preventative Health Taskforce in 2009, which was chaired by Professor Moodie. The target for tobacco smoking set by the Taskforce was to reduce daily smoking from about 17% to less than 10% by 2020. The plain packaging laws ban the use of corporate logos, colours, brand images or promotional information, while giving prominence to consumer information and graphic health warning images. Research has shown that the new, approved pack designs are as unattractive as possible to consumers. 

Professor Moodie applauded the federal government's adoption of almost all the tobacco measures recommended by the taskforce, including increased taxes and social marketing campaigns. Yet plain packaging grabbed the most media attention. Why? "I think it's because of the companies' reaction," he says. "They created a front organisation called the Alliance of Australian Retailers to run a campaign against the Government, they ran a very nasty 'nanny state' campaign against the Government and Health Minister Nicola Roxon and they hired the country's most expensive QCs to run this case in the High Court."

Professor Moodie is co-chair of the Australia-India Institute Taskforce on Tobacco Control, which in late 2012, with the support of the Nossal Institute, released its major policy report. It draws on Australia's experience to map strategies for introducing plain packaging to India.  

Perhaps India will become the second nation in the world to achieve this milestone; in early December 2012, an Indian MP introduced a Private Members' Bill aimed at doing just that. Plain packaging is also gaining support in New Zealand, the United Kingdom Uruguay and Norway. But if India, the second largest producer and consumer of tobacco products in the world, brought in plain packaging, its impact would be enormous – more than one million Indians die every year due to tobacco use. 

"It's very important that big countries like India are starting to pick up the issues," he says. "We've been able to partner them in this and there is no legal or cultural reason why plain packaging couldn’t be introduced there just as we've done it in Australia."

Photo courtesy of the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.