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Issue #1544      25 April 2012

The fight for plain packaging of tobacco

The packaging of tobacco is a major part of its advertising – as the tobacco industry admits in its own documents. That is why ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) and many other organisations support mandated plain standardised packaging of tobacco products – and why the industry is fighting it.

The sovereignty of countries should be absolute and not influenced by multinational companies with complex accountability. This laudable move towards plain packaging must not be derailed by veiled tactics from companies with vested interests. Only then can progress be made to tackle tobacco-associated diseases, which are largely preventable, but mostly lethal.

Background

After a recommendation from the 2009 report of Australia’s National Preventative Health Taskforce, on April 29, 2010, the Australian government announced plain packaging of tobacco products would be fully implemented by July 2012. Australia was the first country in the world to set a deadline. ASH Australia and others hailed the decision as a major step in the fight against tobacco.

In the lead-up to Australia’s 2010 federal elections, the three major tobacco companies (BAT, Philip Morris, Imperial) poured $5 million into a misleading mass media ad campaign against plain packs, fronted by hastily-formed “Australian Alliance of Retailers” (AAR).

ASH and other groups, and six Australians of the Year condemned the AAR campaign, urged all parties to honour the July 2012 commitment. The ALP and Greens reaffirmed support; the Liberal/National parties agreed to “consider” it.

Meanwhile the campaign split the retail sector. Major supermarket Coles dissociated themselves from it. Woolworths followed, repudiating retail groups’ “deceptive behaviour”; one umbrella group, the Australian Association of Convenience Stores, also withdrew.

Health groups including ASH wrote to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission objecting to the “misleading and deceptive” campaign and noted the AAR was hastily formed with a sole shareholder and sham address, and that the campaign was from the tobacco industry, not small retailers.

International

UK: April 2012 – The UK government has opened its public consultation on standardised packaging of tobacco. Public input opened on April 16 and closes July 10. The Health Department has also commissioned an independent review of the research evidence.

Europe: April 2012 – The European Commission is considering making plain tobacco packaging mandatory across Europe. Australia’s Ambassador to The EU Dr Brendan Nelson says he hopes the Australian reform will encourage Europe to follow.

March 2012: UK Prime Minister David Cameron promises a recently-appointed adviser with tobacco industry connections won’t influence government decisions on tobacco plain packaging. Industry apologist John Luik has been given a government advisory post, but the PM says he won’t be involved in plain packs policy currently under review.

Australia outlines treaty obligations

November 2011: Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon explains how the plain pack law will “give effect” to obligations under the WHO (World Health Organisation) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), including:

  • Article 5 requires signatories to develop/implement comprehensive national tobacco control strategies, programs; effective legislative, other measures to prevent/reduce tobacco consumption, addiction, smoke exposure.
  • Article 11 requires effective measures to ensure packaging does not promote tobacco by being false or misleading about characteristics, health effects, hazards, emissions.
  • Article 13 requires comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion, sponsorship.

NZ “actively considers” following Australia

November 2011: New Zealand’s government is “actively considering” following Australia’s lead and introducing plain tobacco packaging – while the tobacco industry already threatens the kinds of legal action assessed as “unfounded” and “largely vexatious” by Australian independent legal experts.

WHO chief slams industry dirty tricks

October 2011: World Health Organisation Director-General Margaret Chan slams the tobacco industry for “dirty tricks” in trying to block tobacco-free policies worldwide, falsely claim Australia’s plain pack bills violate international trade obligations. Urges countries to “stand firm together, do not bow to pressure ... we must never allow the tobacco industry to get the upper hand”.

Canada passes packet warning increase

September 2011: Canada approves bigger graphic pack health warnings, as world leaders welcome Australia’s plain pack move. Canada will put graphic warnings on 75 percent of both front and back of packs by June 2012. Canada along with several other countries reported to be watching Australia’s reform closely, considering future policy.

Malaysia lobbied to derail Australian bills

May 2011: A high-powered US consultant linked to the tobacco industry lobbies Malaysia to oppose Australia’s initiative; powerful US congressmen helping the industry use its “global economic power” to block the world-first bill.

Australia leading the war on tobacco

May 2011: Australia’s plain packaging bill “would set new global standards and encourage governments in the Asia Pacific Region to also get tough with the tobacco industry,” says WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Director Dr Shin Young-Soo.  

 

Next article – Long-term detainees’ roof-top protest

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