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Opinion: Plain cigarette packaging can save lives – we need to introduce it in Ireland

Plain packing would both reduce the level of consumption in current smokers AND discourage young people from starting in the first place.

Peter Ferguson

SMOKING CURRENTLY COSTS the Irish taxpayer between €1 and €2 billion a year to provide health services to smokers. But behind the financial cost is the human cost, with an estimated 5,500 people a year dying from smoking-related diseases and many more suffering from conditions caused by smoking.

As one of his last acts as Health Minister, Dr James Reilly introduced the Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Bill, which will introduce standardised, plain cigarette packaging as part of his goal to make Ireland a smoke free country by 2025. A rather admirable albeit naïve objective. Although this lofty goal may not be reached, any measure to reduce the level of smoking in Ireland is most welcome.

Plain cigarette packaging has thus far only been introduced in one country worldwide, Australia, where cigarettes are now sold in plain, olive-coloured packaging, in same-size boxes with uniform typeface and large health warnings. Due to the limited application of plain packaging there is little concrete evidence to attest its efficacy.

Branding matters

However, there have been over two dozen peer-reviewed studies which suggest that branding encourages youth uptake of smoking. Experiments were also conducted with plain cigarette packaging and they yielded some interesting findings. Not only did smokers deem the packaging less attractive but they judged the taste to be inferior even though it was the same quality tobacco. Plain packaging also increased negative perceptions about smoking. Many resorted to hiding the packet and reduced their consumption while in public.

Cancer Council Australia comprehensively reviewed the evidence in relation to plain packaging:

The evidence indicates three primary benefits of plain packaging: increasing the effectiveness of health warnings, reducing false health beliefs about cigarettes, and reducing brand appeal especially among youth and young adults. Overall, the research to date suggests that ‘plain’ packaging regulations would be an effective tobacco control measure, particularly in jurisdictions with comprehensive restrictions on other forms of marketing.

Ireland is one such jurisdiction. Tobacco advertising is banned on TV, billboards and radio. Even in-store advertising and displays are no longer permitted. In such a heavily restricted environment, packaging becomes the sole vehicle for communicating brand image and to promote the product. By introducing plain packaging it denies tobacco companies their final avenue for advertisement.

The tobacco industry

Since the inauguration of Australia’s plain packaging laws, the tobacco industry has claimed its sale of cigarettes increased by 59 million sticks in the first year of the policy. This translates to a 0.3% increase in sales. Although 0.3% doesn’t sound significant, it comes after a 15.6% decrease in sales in the previous four years. However, these statistics emanate from the tobacco industry which obviously has a conflict of interest.

The tobacco industry has been putting up a ferocious fight to combat plain packaging, including media campaigns and legal challenges. A negative portrayal of plain packaging laws would be to its benefit, not only in terms of helping to repeal the Australian law but also in preventing others nation’s enacting similar legislation. Thus the report suggesting an increase in sales should be taken with a pinch of salt, especially since the report has not been made accessible to the public, preventing it from being independently verified. Also, if it were true that sales had increased then, surely, the tobacco industry would cease their fervent opposition to a policy which they claim they are profiting from.

Further eyebrows are raised as the Australian Bureau of Statistics national accounts show that the consumption of tobacco and cigarettes during the March quarter of 2014 is the lowest since records began in 1959. This has been corroborated by the National Drugs Strategy Household Survey which, in a recently released report, found that the daily smoking rate plunged from 15.1% to 12.8% between 2012 and 2013. More encouragingly it found that 95% of 12 to 17 year olds have never smoked.

Plain packaging will assist in the decline of cigarette consumption

The importance of evidence-based policy making, especially in regard to health, cannot be overstated. It is paramount that all decisions are based on accurate and meaningful information to ensure effective outcomes. Both the scientific studies and the data provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and National Drugs Strategy Household Survey suggest plain packaging, combined with previously established measures, aid in reducing the consumption of tobacco and cigarettes.

Although the policy is in its infancy and it will take a few years before definitive, longitudinal data can be extrapolated, based on the current available evidence the introduction of plain packaging will assist in the decline of cigarette consumption and the government should proceed with the policy.

Not only will it help reduce the level of consumption in current smokers but it will also discourage young people from adopting the habit. This will decrease the financial burden on the taxpayer but, more importantly, prevent many people from dying from smoking-related illnesses.

Decreasing the levels of smoking in Ireland is a worthy goal and plain cigarette packaging is demonstrable method of doing so, its introduction should be welcomed.

Peter Ferguson is a sceptic and a writer, he is a contributing author in the upcoming book 13 Reasons to Doubt, and he blogs at SkepticInk.com. Twitter @humanisticus

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