A leading expert in tobacco control says that new research has proven the effectiveness of Australia's plain packaging laws in making smoking less appealing to both children and adults, and that other countries should follow their lead.
Dr Caroline Miller, Executive Officer at the South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), said research published today in Tobacco Control found that plain packaging was effective in stopping adults and children from smoking.
"This really would be a benefit for all countries around the world. This is a policy that, for government, is essentially free."
"Tobacco is a product, the only product in the world, that when used exactly as the manufacturer intends, kills more than one in two users. It's unique in that regard," Dr Miller says.
Legislation passed in Australia in 2012 requires cigarettes to be sold in logo-free, drab dark brown packaging. The law compounds earlier legislation that required them to carry graphic health warnings.
"The plain packaging with large graphic health warnings is an example where Australia really has led the world. They've gone out first and introduced a new policy," Dr Miller said.
Dr Miller leads a program of research in population health focused on tobacco control. She is a Beat Cancer Principal Research Fellow and former General Manager of Cancer Control at Cancer Council.
"This really would be a benefit for all countries around the world. This is a policy that, for government, is essentially free. It has impact with adults and kids. Really, all countries around the world interested in tobacco control and reducing the toll from tobacco should do this."
The combined research from SAHMRI, The University of Adelaide and Victoria Cancer Council found that although the plain packaging policy was originally intended to make smoking less appealing for young people and potential new smokers, it also led people to thinking about quitting and increased quit attempts.
"Implementing strong tobacco control policy measures like this [is] ultimately going to make profound differences for public health and the health system."
The research also found that school children aged 12-17 years found the packaging less appealing; that smokers were more likely to conceal their packs from view in outdoor venues after the packaging was introduced; and that there was no evidence of an increase in the consumption of illicit cigarettes following the introduction of standardised packaging.
"I think these studies will be absolute landmark studies, and I think what we'll see now is plain packaging starting to be debated and implemented all around the world - as we did with graphic health warnings prior to plain packaging," Dr Miller says.
Dr Miller said that it was crucial that countries like Australia publish these research results, so that other countries can see the true effects of the legislation - and see through misleading claims made by the tobacco industry.
"The industry goes out and does a lot of fear mongering about these types of intervention. This comprehensive range of evaluation shows that their claims are baseless. Their claims about illicit trade going up are baseless."
The report also emphasises the importance of having the debate sooner than later. It notes that in countries like Asia, the marketing power of packaging is increasing.
Changes to the design of packs will increase their desirability. Different materials, including special foil, varnishes, coatings are being worked on by the industry to give smokers a tactile experience, as well as fragrances that will be released when packages are opened.
Innovations in ink technology will mean that packages may glow in the dark or change colour with temperature. Electronic circuits have already been introduced in some packets, displaying scrolling messages and graphics. It's a short step to introduce packaging that interacts with smartphones and devices.
"What we know about the tobacco industry and the way they market is that they've been incredibly powerful and innovative marketers, and that they've been selling glamour and lifestyle through what is a deadly and addictive product. They've been doing this for decades."
An example of the plain packaging used in Australia. The drab dark brown colour, plain fonts, lack of logo and graphic health warning all contribute to make smoking less appealing.
Dr Miller says that in Australia, the packet itself is the industry's last line of marketing. People growing up in the 70s or 80s would be surrounded by ubiquitous tobacco marketing in cinemas, on TV and billboards.
"The new packet is not the sort of thing you want to have on the table next to your iPhone 6. It used to look very glamorous and it no longer does. That's exactly what we want: we don't want it to be a symbol of prestige and a symbol of fashion. We want it to accurately depict the contents, which is a deadly and addictive product."
As Ireland implements plain packaging and Britain rubber stamped laws only days ago that will introduce the packaging in 2016, Dr Miller emphasises that the legislation is something any country with a public health system should seriously consider.
"Tobacco is a major preventable of premature death and illness globally. Implementing strong tobacco control policy measures like this, which de-glamourise smoking and ultimately make it less appealing to young people, or encourage people in quitting, they're ultimately going to make profound differences for public health and the health system.
"It's really important to note, it's a policy that's based on really sound evidence. The evaluation has proven it to be successful and has proven the tobacco industry's claims to be baseless, that other countries should think seriously about implementing plain packaging, because it's not an expensive policy intervention, and it's taking away the glamour of a product which addicts young people. Most people take up smoking before the age of 18. It addicts people for life and it kills between half to two thirds of long-term users."
SAHMRI's Population Health Group is a part of our Cancer and Heart Health themes.