So the Rudd government is adopting the world’s most draconian cigarette packaging regulation and requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packages from January 2012. Good on it.

When I was on the Productivity Commission (then the Industry Commission) inquiry into Packaging and Labelling the same policy came before us and I sold it to the team and the other commissioner, Morrie Joyce. We took it to a full commission meeting and nearly got our strongly worded recommendation through.

However as I recall, the draft recommendation was written up in an elaborate way and after nearly going through, one commissioner started questioning some small part of it and then others chimed in. In the end it got unpicked and was dropped.

More comprehensively removing the right to advertise and make cigarettes attractive was always good policy. Higher cigarette taxes may be sensible policy but some of us support them with a heavy heart — such taxes are very regressive.

In fact, though our proposed recommendation was dropped, consensus was reached by having the text broadly supporting restrictions on marketing on cigarette packaging — effectively endorsing the kind of position that’s now been taken — but without a formal recommendation.

Purposes of product labelling include identifying the product, informing consumers and promoting the product. Promotion can increase a branded product’s sales in two ways. It can cause consumers to substitute between brands and it can increase the over-all consumption. For dangerous drugs (therapeutic and non-therapeutic) identification and providing information are appropriate roles for packaging. Cigarette promotion on labels would appear to be inconsistent with the government’s policy objectives, especially that of reducing exposure…

Registrar of the Australian College of Paediatrics (ACP) has said that the ACP is confident that current research from abroad substantiates that generic packaging is effective and that:

… making tobacco more difficult to market would protect our young people from becoming addicted to what was arguably a lethal drug. (ACP 1995, p. 1)

As further research becomes available, governments should continue to consider constraints on the promotional value of cigarette labels if this could generate a substantial reduction in the level of smoking.

So there you have it. The PC was (quietly) ahead of its time.

*Nicholas Gruen was presiding commissioner of the PC’s Packaging and Labelling Inquiry, which reported in 1996

Peter Fray

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