Australia has passed legislation – due to come into effect in December 2012 – to standardise all tobacco packaging, removing all branding and imagery. As the UK government consults on the future of tobacco packaging, Cancer Research UK asked Professor Simon Chapman for his perspective on the Australian experience.

Cancer Research UK has launched “The Answer is Plain” campaign to raise awareness of the issue, alongside a hard-hitting short film that illustrates children’s attraction to the slickly designed cigarette packs.

Simon Chapman

Professor Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney

In the past 20 months, Australian news audiences have been exposed to some exotic, thought-to-be-extinct species on their screens and radios. After more than 15 years, the tobacco industry dodo is back and walking among us, attempting to fly.

Australia’s pioneering plain packaging legislation has brought them out into public, in a desperate effort to prevent the fall of a domino that promises to cascade globally, ending the industry’s centre-piece of tobacco promotion: the lure of the pack.

The University of California’s Stan Glantz once remarked that those who lead the tobacco industry are like cockroaches: “They love the dark and they spread disease.”

Ever since the magnesium glare unleashed by the public release of its internal private tobacco industry documents via the 1998 US Master Settlement Agreement, the industry has kept well out of public view, working behind the scenes to shore up its ebbing credibility.

The court of public opinion told them they were regarded as the most untrustworthy of all industries. Media appearances had become progressively humiliating as their spin was rejected.

But the truth serum contained in the millions of now public pages of court-ordered internal documents sealed their public fate. The industry always knew tobacco killed, but had lied about it for decades. Their marketing divisions had underlined the vital importance of recruiting youth, and their chemists had been busy working overtime to enhance the addictiveness of nicotine.

Australia’s historic plain cigarette packaging legislation is weapons-grade public health policy that is causing apoplexy in the international industry. It is likely to have little effect on heavily dependent smokers who tend to be brand loyal and less image conscious, but without branding, future generations will grow up never having seen category 1 carcinogens packaged in attractive packs.

Today’s Australian 20-year-olds have never seen local tobacco advertising, and youth smoking rates are at an all-time low. Plain packs will turbocharge this trend, making smoking history.

Tobacco is a dying market in nations like Australia which lead the world in comprehensive tobacco control. National data released in July show only 15.1 per cent are now smoking daily – the lowest ever recorded.

From the time that machine-manufactured cigarettes were first marketed at the beginning of the twentieth century, the advertising and packaging industries did all they could to portray cigarettes as a means of signaling personal identity to the young as they took up smoking. A callow youth who wouldn’t be seen dead with a menthol Alpine felt assured by the promise of masculinity in pulling out a packet of Marlboros.

Those not wanting the social opprobrium that can come with being showy had the iconic ordinariness of Winfield to clutch as their totem. Those wanting to affect retro stylishness have Peter Stuyvesant or Lucky Strike, and wannabes, any number of haute couture named brands – designer carcinogens.

But from December 1st 2012, all cigarettes will look the same, distinguished only by the brand and variant name in standard font.

The industry’s re-entry into policy debate has produced some high comedy. In advising government that plain packs will “not work”, it sought a role as a wise public health authority, when of course its fiduciary duty to its shareholders demands that it support policies which maximise use.

It has commissioned reports that purport to show that one in six cigarettes being smoked now are illicit, when the latest national survey reports that a mere 1.5 per cent of smokers use illegal tobacco more than half the time.

Most of all though, its blank cheque advertising campaigns, imploring the government to desist, say to anyone with half a brain that the industry knows plain packs will “kill their business”, as the cover story of a tobacco trade magazine put it in 2008. That’s precisely the plan.

Tobacco kills one in two of its long-term users. The tobacco industry’s current undisguised panic shows that plain packs will hit them very hard. If she were to do nothing else, Health Minister Nicola Roxon (now Attorney General) has marked her tenure with this historic legislation.

It will stand in public health history as a major chapter of how governments put the health of the population before the corporate interests of a pariah industry. Just one disease caused by smoking – lung cancer – was rare before 1930. Over the next 50 years, it rose to become the world’s leading cause of cancer death. In countries like Australia it is now on the wane.

Plain packaging will accelerate its eventual demise as a major cause of death.

You can sign up to support plain packs here.