The Rudd government yesterday breathed new life into the smoking debate with the double-barrelled announcement that tobacco tax was jumping up by 25% effective at midnight and that tobacco would be sold in plain packaging from January 2012.

Tobacco taxes are a proven cornerstone of tobacco control policy and have a long track record of preventing young people from starting and inciting current smokers to quit. Plain packaging, however, is without international precedence and positions Australia as a global leader in public health reform.

Putting the accolades and triumphant high fives aside, what does plain packaging actually mean? Contrary to the musings of the conservative think-tank, Institute of Public Affairs, plain packaging does not equate to acquiring the intellectual property of tobacco companies.

Tobacco companies will still maintain full rights to their logos and brand imagery; they will simply no longer be able to use these marketing tools on cigarette packages. And, while a pack of smokes in 2012 won’t be wrapped in comforting beach scenes or a high-tech metallic sheen, it will feature bigger and even more graphic health warnings.

Unsurprisingly, every conceivable arm of the cigarette manufacturing and retailing sector has weighed in on why plain packaging will cause the very sky to fall.

The executive director of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores showed heartfelt concern for convenience store employees as “many are new entrants to the workforce and immigrants. They rely on visual cues for product selection and we have real concerns for retailers as they struggle to restock and service consumers when legal products are unable to be quickly differentiated from each other”.

The Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia said there was “simply no need for these extreme measures in order for the government to pursue the health outcomes it desires”. No advice on what non-extreme measures could be used to cut smoking targets to less than 10% by 2020.

The tobacco industry itself was mostly tight-lipped on the issue, with Imperial Tobacco one of the few companies to provide the public comment. The company stated in its press release  that it, “will make every effort to protect its brands and associated intellectual property and including, if necessary, take legal action”.

Plain packaging was removed from the public health agenda in the early 1990s due to tobacco industry bolstering swift legal action. In 2010, it seems governments won’t be so easily scared off by this legal hot air.

Becky Freeman and Simon Chapman are from the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney

Peter Fray

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