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Big Tobacco says plain-packaging laws are a 'failure' - are they telling the truth?

We sift through the facts and fiction on the government’s anti-smoking plan.

Smoker Source: Dhilung Kirat

THIS WEEK IRELAND became the first country in Europe to pass plain-packaging laws – a move which James Reilly acclaimed as a win for the “future health of our children”.

In pushing the plan, the former health minister said there was a “wealth of evidence” showing plain cigarette packs had a positive impact and they worked to reduce the appeal of the cancer-causing habit.

Tobacco control experts in Ireland and internationally recognise that no one element in isolation can be effective in reducing tobacco consumption and move us towards a smoke free state by 2025,” he said.

New Cigarette Packets Children and Youth Affairs Minister James Reilly Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Meanwhile, tobacco firms have been fighting the laws tooth and nail – threatening legal action and responding with their own claims that the laws had been a “failure” in Australia, the first country to make the move.

Japan Tobacco International (JTI) Ireland, which sells brands including Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut and Camel, says the evidence there was that plain packaging hadn’t sped up the already steady drop in smoking rates or cut tobacco sales.

It claims instead the laws have only led to a major rise in illicit tobacco use – and that more young people were actually smoking daily now than before the change.

Clearly at least one side isn’t telling the unfiltered truth about the impact of plain cigarette packaging.

plainpacks_1 How the plain packs would look

Has plain packaging cut smoking?

The latest figures from Australia are unambiguous – fewer people are smoking now than before the restrictions were brought in and less legal tobacco products are being sold.

Figures from the country’s treasury and published by its health department showed the amount of tobacco being cleared for sale dropped 3.4% in 2013 compared to the previous year. The new laws applied from December 2012.

The most recent data from its household surveys also indicated a drop – $3.4 billion in tobacco sales for the March 2014 quarter, compared to nearly $3.6 billion in March 2012.

Sir Cyril Chantler review The cigarette packs used in Australia Source: Ella Pickover/PA Wire

Those decreases are more noteworthy still when the country’s annual population growth of about 1.7% is taken into account because neither figure is weighed for the extra 400,000-or-so people a year.

Data from the country’s national survey on drugs showed the share of people over 14 smoking daily had fallen from 15.1% in 2010 to 12.8% in 2013. The proportion of the population who said they had never smoked also rose significantly.

But the proportion of 12-17 year-olds claiming to be daily smokers did go up – from 2.5% to 3.4% – the only age bracket besides the over-70s with any increase.

Smoking Source: National Drug Strategy Household Survey

Mostly positive news for anti-smoking campaigners then – but the big, unanswered question remains how much, if any, of the drop in tobacco use could be put down to the new packs and how much down to other approaches.

Smoking rates in Australia have been in steady decline since the early 1990s after a series of changes to advertising, health warnings and prices.

And in 2010 the country brought in a 25% excise fee hike, the first major increase in over a decade, which has been followed up with a series of smaller rises that have put the average price of a 20-cigarette pack at nearly $20 (€14).

Here’s a chart of that history:

Smoking1 Source: Australian Department of Health

What about those smugglers?

Another one of Big Tobacco’s claims has been that plain packaging will make it easier for criminals to sell counterfeit cigarettes because the new unbranded packs would be simpler to copy.

JTI recently pointed to increased tobacco seizures in Australia outlined in annual reports from the country’s customs service, which found about 18% more tobacco in 2012-13 than the previous year.

That much is true, but the cigarette company didn’t mention that in 2013-14, the first full year the laws were operating, the seizures dropped almost 14% to nearly the same figure as before – despite the tax and price increases over the period.

Tobacco firms have also repeatedly referred to reports from KPMG which claimed illicit tobacco use had soared under the laws and crime gangs had escaped $1.1 billion (€780 million) in taxes from their illegal imports.

Smoking2 Source: KPMG Illicit Tobacco in Australia

However the same report says the sale of counterfeit tobacco products in Australia was minimal, which doesn’t do much for the tobacco lobby’s easy-to-copy claim.

Both the Australian government and anti-smoking groups have rubbished that report, which was bankrolled by tobacco company Philip Morris, for being based only on an online survey and counting empty packets its researchers found.

Anything else?

Other research used as a justification for plain-packaging laws has shown plain packs were less attractive than their branded equivalents – particularly among impressionable youth.

Health warnings also appeared to stand out better to smokers on plain packs, although this didn’t necessarily translate to participants being more likely to take in the messages.

While the general finding from these studies was the packaging change would only make a very small difference to smokers’ habits, it certainly wasn’t going to increase the amount of the carcinogens anyone took up.

In Australia, tobacco firms also used every legal option open to fight the laws. They waged a concerned media and lobbying campaign to sidetrack the legislation and, after it was passed anyway, took their case to the nation’s highest court on intellectual property grounds – where the legal bid was finally thrown out.

Hong Kong Smuggling An estimated $3.1 million in contraband tobacco products seized in Hong Kong which were believed destined for Australia Source: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

In Ireland, where Reilly has said plain packs probably won’t be on sale until May 2017, Big Tobacco has been taking a similar tack of lobbying, advertising and legal threats to defend its branding.

Some, including a consortium of health and childrens’ charities, have argued the level of opposition from cigarette companies is proof enough that plain packaging works.

First published 6pm, 7 March

READ: Government has paid €4 million to firms linked to Big Tobacco since 2013 >

READ: Ireland has just passed laws to introduce plain packs, but when will they be in shops >

About the author:

Peter Bodkin

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