Editorial: Bring in plain packaging

Published in The Hindu on December 2, 2011

The reason why only 2.5 per cent of children in Australia in the 12-17 age group smoke daily is not difficult to figure out — they have never been exposed to any cigarette advertising. If the Australian government banned cigarette advertising on television and radio way back in 1976, a similar ban for the print media came into effect in 1989. Pictorial warning was enforced in 2006, and since 2010 tobacco products have been removed from sight in retail outlets. Now the Plain Packaging Bill 2011 legislated recently seeks to undermine the last powerful marketing vehicle used by manufacturers to build and sustain brand image — cigarette packaging. With effect from December 1, 2012, cigarette packs and tobacco products will have no logos, promotional text, or colour variation. Instead, 75 per cent of the pack must carry horrendous pictures of diseases and conditions caused by smoking. Large text warnings must accompany the pictures. The rest of the pack will have a plain background with the name of the company and cigarette brand in a prescribed size and font. In short, packaging will be used for strongly conveying a vital public health message, and for reducing the association with the brand’s identity. Unsurprisingly, the revolutionary legislation has been challenged by one of the manufacturers — Philip Morris Asia of Hong Kong that owns the Australian affiliate.

The challenge is mainly on the ground that the government has been “unable to demonstrate” that plain packaging will be “effective in reducing smoking.” There is no precedent to measure the effectiveness of plain packaging. But the fact that adult smoking rates dropped from 24 per cent in 1991 to 15 per cent in 2010 is proof that several marketing and smoking restrictions put in place have produced excellent results. In fact, as a signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), Australia is following the world health body’s guidelines on plain packaging. Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand are keenly following the case as they plan to introduce similar measures. India is a study in contrast. The government took the moral high ground during the TRIPS council meeting on June 7, 2011, but has failed to implement simple anti-smoking measures recommended by the WHO. It has not replaced the old ineffective pictorial warnings introduced in 2009. Worse, succumbing to industry pressure, it has revised the FCTC norms of rotating pictorial warnings every year; it will now rotate them only once in two years. Smoking is estimated to kill nearly a million people in India every year. Why can’t we emulate Australia?