Following Australia’s example, for this year’s World No Tobacco Day on May 31 the World Health Organisation is calling on countries to “get ready for plain packaging of tobacco products”. Plain packaging refers to “measures to restrict or prohibit the use of logos, colours, brand images or promotional information on packaging other than brand names and product names displayed in a standard colour and font style (plain packaging)”.
Against all odds, Australia was the first country to successfully introduce plain packaging in 2012 and has since seen a decline in smoking.
The WHO’s call for action comes at a time when the tide is firmly turning against the tobacco companies. For instance, during the first week of May this year, the tobacco companies lost a long-run legal challenge against the European Union rules that force them to print graphic images on both sides that cover two-thirds of a cigarette packet.
It didn’t stop there. The Court said that the 28 member states can go beyond the requirements of the European directive and introduce plain packaging. According to a May 28 editorial in The Lancet, the European Court of Justice said last month that the new EU law on plain packaging was legal.
France, Ireland, and the U.K. have passed legislation that makes plain packaging mandatory from May 20 this year. All cigarette packets manufactured in these countries will have to be plain, standardised in the same drab green colour with the product name on the pack in a standard font.
A little more than three years after Australia introduced plain packaging, and on the eve of the introduction of plain packaging in the U.K., Australia has reported that its plain packaging experiment is working well.
A post-implementation report published in February this year by Australia said: “The measure has begun to achieve its public health objectives of reducing smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke in Australia and it is expected to continue to do so into the future.”
Between December 2012 and September 2015, plain packaging together with enlarged graphic warnings and 25 per cent tax increase since 2010 reduced average smoking prevalence among Australians aged 14 years and over by 0.55 percentage points. This reduction is would result in at least 118,000 fewer smokers.
Also, experimental studies, surveys and focus group studies have also found that plain packaging achieves its objectives — deter young people from taking up smoking in the first place than making smokers to quit.
“Tobacco packaging is a mobile billboard promoting consumption of tobacco products. Tobacco packaging makes products more attractive, advertises and promotes tobacco consumption, distracts from health warnings and deceives people into thinking that some products are less harmful than others,” notes the WHO in a recently published report.
“If you strip back the decoration, gloss and misleading elements of tobacco packaging, you are left with little more than a box of deadly and addictive products that kills approximately 6 million people a year and harms the health of many more. Plain packaging helps reveal the grim reality of tobacco products,” the WHO report adds.
Although some countries have successfully taken on the Big Tobacco by introducing plain packaging, globally tobacco control has been very uneven. The “least compliant countries are often the ones with the highest rates of tobacco use,” notes the editorial. Hence it wants the global community to “remain vigilant to ensure a robust and even implementation of strategy across all countries”.
For instance, in the case of India, small and locally produced bidis are being displaced by cheap manufactured cigarettes, says a March 14, 2015 paper in The Lancet.
Despite tremendous pressure from tobacco companies India stood its ground by introducing pictorial warning covering 85 per cent of the front and back sides of all tobacco products. The next step for India should be to go in for plain packaging.
There is every reason for India to introduce plain packaging as nearly 1 million people die each year due to tobacco-related diseases. And like Australia, the taxes should be raised steeply to deter young people from smoking and chewing tobacco products.
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