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Column: We owe it to the next generation to fight tobacco with everything we've got

How can we protect our young people from the tactics of the tobacco industry? The answer is simple: plain packaging, writes Kathleen O’Meara.

Kathleen O'Meara

WE HAVE A vision of a future without cancer. That’s why we fight tobacco with everything we’ve got. Smoking is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer in Ireland, so if we end smoking then as a country we will have delivered the single biggest blow to cancer possible.

The key is the next generation. It is possible to have a generation that doesn’t start smoking. How? To successfully protect them from the tactics of the tobacco industry which needs to recruit 50 new smokers a day to replace those who quit and those who die. The answer is plain packs.

January 11th last was the 50th anniversary of the US Surgeon General’s landmark report on smoking and health that has informed public health policy ever since. For the first time, this report linked smoking, lung cancer and a higher death rate.

Since that 1964 report, we have banned tobacco advertising in print and broadcast media, we have banned sponsorship by tobacco companies, and most recently, we have banned point of sale advertising in shops and newsagents, in order to remove advertising opportunities for the tobacco industry.

Now the standardised packaging of tobacco will eliminate the last great marketing tool available to the tobacco companies. Instead of the sleek, expensively designed packaging currently on the market, the new packaging will be a dull, drab colour free of any branding and will also have graphic health warnings showing the effects of smoking on a person’s health.

Removing the ‘glamour’ myth

Standardised packaging does four things. Firstly, and crucially, it reduces the appeal of tobacco to young people. Secondly, it stops smokers believing that some brands are ‘less harmful’ than others. Thirdly, it encourages current smokers to quit, and fourthly, it increases negative feelings around tobacco.

Nearly eight out of every ten current smokers took up the habit when they were teenagers. It is no wonder that teenagers are the key target market for tobacco industry marketing.

The Irish Cancer Society and the Irish Heart Foundation recently commissioned research into the impact of tobacco branding and standardised packaging on young people. The focus groups surveyed comprised of teenagers aged 15 and 16, smokers and non-smokers. It found that teens’ overall impressions of branded pack designs influenced everything from their perception of quality of the product to the likely users of the brand and ultimately their likelihood to try smoking. Brands with packaging that seek to glamorise smoking created a buzz, whereas ‘old fashioned’ packaging was seen as ‘unattractive’.

We showed these same teens the standardised packaging brought in by Australia. The change of attitude was immense. Standardised packaging was immediately rejected by teens who saw it as completely at odds with the image they would like to portray of themselves. It encouraged non-smokers not to begin and current smokers reported they would quit when the new packaging was introduced.

Ireland, once again, is becoming a world leader in tobacco control policy. Once introduced, we will be the second country in the world to have standardised packaging of tobacco. In Australia, which has had plain packaging since December 2012, the initial signs are positive.

Cancer Council Victoria report an incredible 78% hike in calls to the Quitline number printed on packs and a 23% drop in patrons observed smoking at cafes.

Hollow warnings from the tobacco lobby

Reports in the past number of weeks in the media, including this newspaper, suggest that the tobacco industry is pouring money into a campaign to prevent the introduction of standardised packaging. The industry is paying for legal advice that seeks to undermine the public health benefits of such a measure. Hollow warnings of loss of investment, compensation funds and trade barriers all seek to alarm politicians on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children who are currently holding public hearings on the general scheme of the Bill.

One major argument from tobacco manufacturers is that standardised packaging will lead to an increase in counterfeit cigarettes and illegal trade. At the Committee meeting on January 23rd last, representatives from An Garda Síochána and Revenue were categorical in refuting this argument.

“An Garda Síochána has not been presented with evidence which supports this proposition,” the Committee was told. “In terms of the impact of the standardised packaging legislation on the illicit cigarette market, we are satisfied that it will not damage our efforts to tackle the problem,” the spokesman for the Revenue Commissioners said.

Arguments such as these will continue to be put forward by the tobacco industry over the coming weeks. What can’t be argued are the public health merits of the proposal. The numbers smoking in Ireland are dwindling, but it’s still too many.

The sooner plain packs are introduced, the sooner young people are better protected from the marketing tactics of the tobacco industry and the sooner the battle against tobacco is won.

Kathleen O’Meara is Head of Advocacy & Communications at the Irish Cancer Society

Read: Father with terminal lung cancer joins with HSE in fight against tobacco

Column: The tobacco industry promotes a killer product – we should limit all interactions with it

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