Whiff of desperation as tobacco lobby loses its puff over packaging
8 January 2013
Australia's historic plain packaging became law on December 1, with the quinella seeing us graduate to also have the world's largest graphic health warnings. Sixty-four nations have now made the unforgettable pictures law and six (New Zealand, Britain, France, Norway, Turkey and India) are already showing strong interest in following our lead on plain packs.
The bad news about smoking and disease trickled in from the first decades of last century. With three major studies on smoking and lung cancer published in the early 1950s, in 1957, Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council wrote to the minister for health urging that the government should "warn non-smokers against acquiring the habit of smoking". But in the face of industry opposition, it would take another 16 years before the first timid warning appeared in tiny lettering at the base of Australian packs. Since then, there have been four further generations of warnings, culminating with plain packaging in 2012.
The tobacco industry strongly resisted all of these. A British American Tobacco official wrote to the German branch office in 1978: "Obviously the group policy should be to avoid health warnings on all tobacco products for just as long as we can." The industry threw everything it could at plain packaging: millions of dollars in hysterical TV advertising, a forlorn High Court challenge that was supported by just one of the seven judges, a conga-line of political threats from obscure US trade groups. The slippery slope metaphor was given its biggest ever workout: life as we know it would surely soon collapse entirely into dreary North Korean conformity as anything posing even the smallest risk would be treated the same as tobacco.
I'd seen all the pack prototypes and research that showed which warnings generated most concern in smokers. But nothing prepared me for how bad the real things actually look. No other consumer product in history has ever been packaged like this, underscoring the exceptional status of tobacco as a killer product. Early signs are promising. Stories are pouring in about negative reaction by smokers. A colleague's hairdresser told her she was quitting as she was too ashamed to be seen with the packs. A West Australian tobacconist estimated that a quarter of his customers were remarking that their usual cigarette now tasted worse in the new packs. Marketing gurus have been writing about how predictable this effect is.
With all generations of pack warnings, we've seen a succession of knowing predictions from talk-back callers that smokers would be one step ahead of out-of-touch governments by simply transferring their cigarettes to elegant cases, or buying natty covers to hide their eyes from the warnings. With plain packs, we didn't have to wait long. A small businessman from Queensland got his 15 minutes of fame by announcing that smokers could now buy stickers to cover the front and back of the new pack. An easy $8.75 buys you enough for six packs, with choices ranging from a map of Australia to a glimpse of a map of Tasmania, via a rear view of a young woman with her legs apart.
New titles planned are rumoured to include ''I'm an adult, but like a child I hide my eyes from scary things''; ''I have an IQ 1 point higher than it takes to grunt''; ''Please buy me: no one else is"; ''I choose to hide from the truth''.
Since launching his stickers in early December, he's been deluged with a whole 386 Facebook "likes", and 1319 views of his YouTube promotion. A whole 24 people have followed him on Twitter, 21 of whom live outside Australia, being mainly pro-smoking groups who see plain packs as a strike at the heart of their inalienable freedom to buy a product in beautiful packs that will kill half its long-term users, all market tested to their last square-centimetre. Like all the opportunists who did their dough with previous cover gimmicks for the older health warnings, our Queensland entrepreneur looks like an early candidate for the 2013 Darwin award for business acumen. There are about 2.8 million smokers in Australia. But sightings of discarded, sticker-wrapped packs are as rare as rocking horse excrement.
Anyone who takes the trouble to go to the expense of hiding their eyes from the pack warnings is engaging in pretty obvious denial. When I'm asked whether this is a worrying development, I cite evidence from four countries showing that smokers who actively try to avoid exposure to pack warnings by covering them up, have higher subsequent rates of quit attempts than those who don't. And I reflect on the stall tables groaning under the weight of forlorn unsold pack covers that you can see in any market.
The International Tobacco Survey that gathers data from dozens of nations to compare progress in tobacco control, has found that 95 percent of smokers regret having started. About a quarter make a serious quit attempt each year. Many applaud measures like tax rises, smoking restrictions and plain packs because they want to stop. I've never met a smoker who wanted their kids to smoke. Australia moves into 2013 with a record low proportion of both adults and children smoking. We're making smoking history, but lung remains by far our biggest cause of cancer death in men and women, reflecting the bitter harvest of past inaction.
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