Plain lessons from Australia

Opinion: Warning on cigarette packaging clampdown

Photograph: Getty Images

Photograph: Getty Images


When you live in Australia and your phone starts buzzing and beeping in the night, you often fear the worst. Which overseas friend is ill – or has someone’s holiday taken a nasty turn?

Happily on this occasion, in May last year, it was not a cause for worry, but for celebration – Ireland was taking on the tobacco industry and, like Australia, intended to introduce plain packaging.

Plain packaging takes away a crucial component of the tobacco industry’s ability to market to children and entice new smokers to their deadly and addictive product.

More strength to Minister for Health James Reilly. There are lives to be saved by taking this strong action.

In Australia, we had already banned advertising, sponsorship and promotion of tobacco. We restrict displays in shops and supermarkets and we have large graphic health warnings on all packs.

Despite this, the industry found a way to get around these restrictions, by cleverly using smokers themselves to promote their products. The pack is advertising space the industry doesn’t pay a cent for: a smoker simply takes the pack in and out of his pocket or her purse 20 or 30 times a day and flashes it in front of friends, colleagues and family.

So the industry spends an awful lot of money on pack design – bright or sleek colours, embossed writing or cheeky designs. They say they don’t advertise to kids but much of this effort is aimed to appeal to a new smoker who they hope will become a devotee of their brand.

My government’s decision to introduce plain packaging was the first in the world and attracted a furious response from the tobacco industry.

The tobacco giants threw everything they could at us – legal threats, political pressure, advertising during our election campaign, front organisations and dodgy data.

All this, and more, was part of their impressive campaign against us.

The bad news for Ireland is that your country can also expect that these tactics, and many more, will be used to try to stop your Government taking this important public health measure.

The good news for Ireland is that these tactics can be exposed. Governments can withstand the bullying and intimidation from industry. Australia’s success proved this.

Part of the key to our success was very strong public support, even from smokers. Throughout this lengthy and contentious debate, I never once met a smoker who hoped their child would also smoke. A powerful argument, if ever there was one, to press ahead with a measure aimed to give our next generation even better health than ours.

Also vital were extremely active doctors, health professionals, academics, researchers and health groups supporting our government when things got tough, or nasty. Even from this distance, it is clear your Government will need this support too.

And a healthily cynical media played its part too – such as uncovering a stunt by the industry who had set up a “retail” group to complain about the impact on small shop owners. This backfired when it was shown that the retail group was being funded by the big overseas tobacco manufacturers, who were directing its activities. No-one likes being treated like an idiot, so when Australians were shown the tricks the industry used, it just consolidated support for our innovative measure even further.

So look out for the selective use of data, industry-funded “research” that can’t be scrutinised and constantly changing parameters and boundaries leading to dubious conclusions. Expect these techniques and much more.

It is important to expect the inevitable threats of legal action. This industry has deep pockets and will pursue every legal avenue it can, as it did against us.

We comprehensively won our legal case in Australia – but that hasn’t stopped the industry backing further international action in the World Trade Organisation.

Although this dispute has not yet been resolved, it is being used to threaten other countries, or to persuade countries to delay their action.

I’m glad Ireland didn’t fall for this, because when we are talking about such an addictive product, it’s hard not to focus on the fact that every delay equates to more new smokers.

I don’t know Minister for Health James Reilly – but like me, he lost someone too because of smoking. My father died of cancer of the oesophagus when I was 10. This wasn’t the reason I took action, but it sure was some extra motivation.

The reasons for action were based on the crystal clear evidence of the harm caused by tobacco and our desire to try and reduce those harms – so that fewer Australians, and fewer Irish kids will be lured into this fatal addiction.

Nicola Roxon is former Australian Minister for Health and former Australian Attorney General

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