Indian policymakers should take a long hard look at the recent decision of Australia’s high court upholding landmark legislation passed by Canberra last year to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes. The verdict sends a strong message — public health concerns are supreme and override intellectual property rights and trademark devaluation. In fact, the World Health Organisation recommends plain packaging for effective tobacco control, and Australia has complied with it in letter and spirit. Under the country’s plain packaging laws, large text warnings and shocking pictures of the diseases and conditions caused by smoking must cover 75 per cent of the face of cigarette packages and 90 per cent of the back from December 1, 2012. More importantly, the packages cannot carry brand logos and colourful designs; even the brand name and variant will be in a standard size, font and colour in an olive green strip at the bottom. The ruling has in effect allowed the country to turn the very purpose of cigarette packaging on its head. Cigarette packets will cease to be a marketing tool for reinforcing brand image and promoting smoking as a status symbol. Instead, they will become effective vehicles for spreading public health messages and dissuading consumption at no cost to the government. The verdict will go down in history as a game changer by choking an industry that is responsible for the mortality and morbidity of millions of people every year for the last several decades. The case has been closely followed by Britain, Norway, New Zealand, Uruguay and Canada, which are planning to come up with similar legislation. The European Commission is planning to make legislative proposals to introduce plain packaging across Europe.
Using stringent rules to reduce tobacco consumption is nothing new for Australia. Cigarette advertising in television and radio was banned as early as 1976; a similar ban for the print media followed in 1989. The ban on smoking at workplaces came into effect in 1986, followed by a ban in 2000 on smoking in public places. Pictorial warnings were introduced in 2006, and since 2010 cigarettes are required to be kept out of sight at retail outlets. Starting 1978, the price of cigarettes has been increasing steadily; currently a pack of 25 cigarettes costs 16 Australian dollars. There are many lessons that India should learn from Australia. To begin with, India should introduce larger and shocking pictorial warnings on cigarette and bidi packets, and chewing tobacco sachets and reverse its retrograde decision of changing the warnings only once every two years. According to The Lancet, the number of tobacco users in India is 275 million. How long can the government continue to abdicate its responsibility?