12 July 2021
Rachel Clun. Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
Cigarettes today are sold in drab olive-brown boxes, replete with yellow warning labels that shout “SMOKING KILLS” next to ugly photographs of gangrenous and rotting toes.
There’s a whole generation of younger people who haven’t seen them sold any other way in Australia.
But more than a decade ago, plain packaging was far from reality as tobacco companies and libertarians fought against plans by the Rudd and Gillard governments to introduce it, alongside a hike in tobacco excise, aimed at reducing the number of smokers.
Ten years ago, Mike Daub watched from the public gallery at Parliament House as then-health minister Nicola Roxon introduced the plain packaging legislation.
“We are taking this action because tobacco is not like any other legal product. When used as intended, it is lethal,” Roxon said in her speech on July 6, 2011.
“Despite Australia’s success in reducing smoking rates over recent decades, tobacco remains one of the leading causes of preventable death and disease … killing over 15,000 Australians each and every year. It is therefore incumbent on us to do all we can to stamp it out.”
Daub, an Emeritus Professor of health policy at Curtin University, chaired the committee that researched and recommended plain packaging as a way to reduce smoking rates. He says that moment was a huge step in public health for both Australia and the world more broadly.
“A few years before that we wouldn’t have dreamed of having not just plain packaging, but those ugly images,” he says. “No country would have, it just seemed impossible. Then Australia did it. And the dominoes started to fall.”
Now, 20 countries including the UK, Turkey, France, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ukraine have brought in their own versions of plain packaging legislation.
Thousands of Australians still die from smoking-related diseases every year, but the rate of smoking has continued to fall. Data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey estimated about 11.6 per cent of adults smoke daily, down from 12.8 per cent in 2016 and more than half the 25 per cent who smoked in 1991.
Plain packaging was not the only reform introduced to help bring down the rate. Taxes on tobacco were upped by 25 per cent in 2010, and then increased by 12.5 per cent each year from 2013 to 2020.
Those increases made tobacco excise the fourth largest individual tax collected by the federal government, worth an estimated $15 billion last financial year.
While other factors including a ban on smoking in certain areas has also helped, Professor Melanie Wakefield who heads the centre for behavioural research at the Cancer Council of Victoria and was also on the advisory group to government on plain packaging implementation, said plain packaging has had a measurable impact.
“Plain packaging accounted for about a quarter of the total decline in smoking prevalence in three years after plain packaging. And so Australia had about 100,000 fewer smokers as a result,” she says.
Importantly, she says, it has also had an impact on youth smoking rates.
“In the last national survey, only 5 per cent of secondary school students had smoked in the last week, and that was down by a third from before plain packaging.”
The law passed in December 2011, and from December 2012 all cigarettes and tobacco products had to be sold in plain packaging, making Pantone shade 448C the only colour of choice for the tobacco industry in Australia.
But it didn’t become reality without a fight. Tobacco companies fought against what they and libertarians argued was a “nanny state” going too far.
British American Tobacco Australia ran a national media campaign against it, arguing it would increase smoking rates through a boost to illegally imported and cheaper products.
“Why should Australians have to potentially foot a huge bill for experimental legislation which has not been adopted anywhere else in the world?” chief executive David Crow said in May 2011.
Another argument was mandatory plain packaging breached trademark laws and intellectual property rights.
Liberal MP Tim Wilson was director of the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs at the time. He argued introducing plain packaging would cost taxpayers up to $3 billion as tobacco companies fought it through the courts.
Although the court battles were won by the Commonwealth, Wilson still disagrees with the move.
“Health activists now talk of replicating plain packaging to other products, like they want higher taxes and sales restrictions and public warning labels.”
The Coalition was also broadly opposed to it. Liberal backbencher Dr Mal Washer, however, was not shy of supporting the measure, telling The Age at the time he would be voting for the legislation.
“I support these reforms unequivocally and whatever my party decides to do, I don’t give a shit,” he said.
Dr Washer spent more than two decades as a GP before joining Parliament and was highly regarded in the party room. He says a number of his colleagues at the time didn’t want to see a nanny state, but he’d seen first-hand just how harmful smoking could be.
“I was very determined that we would try and save lives with appropriate packaging,” he says.
“And it’s made a difference. It has made a big difference.”
Professor Daub says the tenacity of Roxon was crucial in helping secure the laws. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Professor Wakefield says it’s time to revisit and update our tobacco regulations as the industry evolves new marketing strategies to recruit and hold customers.
“There’s always more to be done because the industry never stands still, it’s very agile,” she says, pointing to gimmicks including crushable menthol capsules in filters as an example, or bonus cigarettes in packs.
“We’d like to see the return of a fully-funded national tobacco campaign, which will bring to life some of the new harms caused by smoking that people don’t know about.”
Vaping is the next smoking-related issue in the sites of health experts.
Professor Wakefield said the rise of vaping was concerning, particularly among young adults. In 2017, the last time it was measured, about 14 per cent of high school students reported having ever used an e-cigarette – quite a high figure, she says, and that was four years ago.