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Plain Tobacco Packaging Laws: an effective measure to curb smoking or a futile effort devoid of any substantive effect?

Plain Tobacco Packaging Laws: an effective measure to curb smoking or a futile effort devoid of any substantive effect?

On the 1st December 2012, Australia undertook the radical act of becoming the first country in the world to introduce plain cigarette packaging legislation which prohibited the use of any promotional text, symbols, images, branding or colour on tobacco products and their packaging (1). Undoubtably, this war against tobacco has now extended to Europe with the UK and Ireland both approving the introduction of similar legislative measures in the past month while other countries such as France, Norway and Finland are endeavouring to rapidly follow these advancements with their own similar proposals. (2)

In terms of the UK, a majority of 254 MP’s voted in favour of the plain packaging proposals during the approval process, with support being garnered from the Liberal Democrats and Labour although Conservative back-benchers did express opposition. Following this, the Bill was approved without a vote by the House of Lords on March 16th 2015. Thus, this legislative measure addressing the plain packaging of cigarettes is due to come into effect in May 2016, a year before the equivalent Irish measure will be fully implemented, meaning that Britain will be the first EU member state to introduce this type of legislation.

With regard to content, this measure will introduce a requirement for standardised or plain packaging of cigarettes and other tobacco products in the UK. It clearly prohibits any form of promotional trademarks, logos or graphics on tobacco packaging. Instead all companies  will be mandated to utilise a standardised font when referring to their brand name and include information such as explicit health warnings and graphic images. Furthermore, the legislation requires that the tobacco packaging itself will consist of a dark coloured background such as olive green in order to lessen the attractiveness of tobacco products to children and adolescents (3).

Unsurprisingly, the introduction of this plain cigarette packaging law has sparked intensive opposition from large tobacco companies in the UK with many planning to take legal action over the loss of their intellectual property. Furthermore, many of these large companies forcefully dispute the claims that the introduction of plain packaging measures have the effect of changing smoking behaviour. For instance, Japan Tobacco Inc. assert that there is ‘no reliable evidence that plain packaging will work’ (4). In addition, British American Tobacco claim that plain packaging is not ‘effective in reducing smoking prevalence as tobacco packaging is not a relevant factor in people’s decision to smoke or quit’ (5).

Thus, an interesting question inevitably arises which merits close scrutiny; are these legislative measures effective in reducing smoking behaviour or are they simply a futile governmental measure that lack any real substantive effect? In establishing whether the UK plain packaging law is likely to have the consequence of reducing or altering smoking behaviour, an examination of the effect of the equivalent Australian measure will be undertaken as this legislation has been in force for a number of years. Furthermore, a number of studies have been conducted on the level of success of the Australian plain packaging legislation which are of interest when speculating on the probability of the effectiveness of the UK measure. This is the case as one can assume that if the Australian measure has proven to be capable and efficient in reducing smoking, then the comparable UK legislative instrument has a high probability of having equivalent effect.

With reference to the Australian experience, it is evidently apparent that the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 has had a desirable effect in reducing the prevalence of smoking within the country. In a recent survey, the Department of Health reported that tobacco consumption decreased by 3.4% in 2013 relative to the previous year and the number of daily smokers aged 18 or older fell from 15.1% in 2010 to 12.8% in 2013. Furthermore, the proportion of 18-24 year olds who have never smoked increased significantly between 2010 and 2013, from 72% to 77% respectively, thus highlighting the effectiveness of the plain packaging measures (6).

A further indicator of the effectiveness of the plain packaging measures can be found in a study published by the British Medical Journal on 19th March 2015 which argues in favour of the effectiveness of the legislation. Indeed, the research concluded that the number of smokers attempting to quit increased by 7% and surveys found that the graphic warnings on the cigarette packets reduced their appeal for young people and resulted in smokers being more likely to conceal the packets from view (7).

These studies are important as they provide quantitative evidence which support the view that the introduction of these legislative measures have a real and meaningful impact in altering smoking behaviour. Furthermore, it is important to note that there has been no increase in illicit tobacco smuggling since the introduction of the Australian plain packaging law which clearly contradicts the position adopted by the global tobacco companies who claimed that this legislation would lead to a significant increase in illegal smuggling (8). However, this has been proven not to be the case. This is an important consideration to take into account as this argument was postulated by the large tobacco companies in Britain also.

Thus, when one makes reference to the Australian experience, one can conclude that plain packaging laws do have substantive effect in reducing smoking behaviour and are effective in achieving a reduction in tobacco consumption. Similar to Australia, it is highly probable that Britain and other EU countries such as Ireland, Norway and Finland will experience similar reductions in smoking behaviour in the future. Undoubtably, the war against tobacco will spread to all EU countries who will adopt some form of plain packaging legislation in the next few years despite strong opposition from tobacco companies. Undoubtably, the ultimate long term success of the legislation will need to be evaluated in the future but it is clear that positive progress has begun in reducing tobacco consumption.

  1. Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 (http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2011A00148)
  2. http://www.euro.who.int/en/countries/norway/news2/news/2014/03/norway-works-towards-the-adoption-of-plain-packaging
  3. http://www.cnbc.com/id/102496089
  4. http://www.jti.co.jp/corporate/enterprise/tobacco/import_opinion/packaging_consultation/JT_response.pdf
  5. http://www.tobaccotactics.org/index.php/Plain_Packaging_Opposition_in_the_UK
  6. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/tobacco-kff
  7. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-19/australias-plain-packaging-laws-are-a-success-studies-show/6331736
  8. http://theconversation.com/despite-evidence-from-tobacco-companies-review-pushes-towards-plain-packs-24298
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