The Australian newspaper has recently run a series of articles attacking the Federal Government’s cigarette packaging reforms, including one quoting Nobel Laureate Professor Barry Marshall’s reservations about the measures.

Dr Ross MacKenzie, Lecturer in Health Studies at Macquarie University, says we shouldn’t lose sight of the evidence suggesting the packaging will prove to be a major boost for public health.

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What’s smoking at The Australian?

Ross MacKenzie writes:

Editors at The Australian have made clear their opposition to the Federal Government’s  proposals to legislate plain cigarette packaging that incorporates graphic health warnings.

The paper’s Friday 8 April editorial Smokescreen or deterrent? argues that smoking rates have been dropping for decades without this “latest proposal for even more hideous cigarette packaging”, managing to imply that tobacco control legislation enacted to date has played no part in this trend.

The editorial states that cigarette manufacturers should be allowed to present their brands to consumers in much the same way that other legal products are packaged, and suggests that significant price hikes may well deter more smokers than would the proposed packaging regulation. That the government’s 2009 tax increase on alcopops is dismissed in the same piece as a “cynical revenue-grab” is apparently not contradictory.

In The Weekend Australian (In the care of a nanny state, Saturday 9 April 2011), the paper’s legal affairs editor Chris Merrit reveals no such inconsistencies. Plain cigarette packaging is nothing less than a demonstration of the growth of the nanny state in Australia, and an example of social engineering.

Merritt has called on representatives  of the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs to support his analysis, although he fails to mention that both of these free-market think tanks have consistently opposed tobacco control initiatives, have received funding from the tobacco industry, or that the Institute of Public Affairs has had tobacco industry executives on its board, as described in ASH Australia’s 2010 report Countering Tobacco Tactics.

Given the apparent difficulties in establishing a logical and objective opposition to the proposed legislation, The Australian’s editors must have been delighted to be able to publish the opinions of Dr Barry Marshall on this issue. (Roxon’s gone too far, says Nobel winner. The Australian 11/4/2011). In the report, Marshall is quoted as stating that as it’s not illegal to smoke there needs to be a limit to tobacco control legislation, and that such regulation persecutes smokers.

Dr Marshall’s credentials and contributions to public health are unimpeachable – Nobel laureates are few and far between, after all.

But what the article reports are Marshall’s personal beliefs, not a scientific evaluation of the legislative proposal or its potential impacts.  Certainly, many people will find some of the graphic health warnings sickening and extreme, as he describes them, but this is their very point – to remind smokers that the potentially extreme consequences of smoking include numerous types of cancers and other chronic illnesses.

There is a compelling body of research that points to the effectiveness of such warnings on cigarette packs but as no country as yet requires plain packaging, related research on its specific impact has been necessarily experimental.

Perhaps the most revealing indication that plain packs featuring graphic health warnings will indeed prove to be a successful public health measure is that the tobacco industry in Australia has spent millions of dollars fighting the initiative since it was first announced in 2010.

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PS from Croakey: Readers wanting more background on the rationale for the packaging measures should have a look at the Preventative Health Taskforce’s work in this area.