Make smoking History
Stripping cigarette packs of their colourful exteriors and forcing them to be sold in plain packaging could prove fatal for the global tobacco industry. Who says so? No less an authority than Tobacco Journal International, the self-styled "leading international trade publication for executives in the world of tobacco". One of its front covers in 2008 said simply: "Plain packaging can kill your business." Back in 2008, plain packs were just an idea; now they are about to become a reality in Australia at the end of this year, with other countries set to follow suit, possibly including the UK.
Australia has blazed a trail in passing plain packaging legislation. Canada had tried, but failed in 1994, when momentum disappeared amid ministerial changes and intense lobbying from the big tobacco firms. Fast forward to 2012 and a policy that for years has been just a gleam in the eye of public health campaigners has become the new weapon of choice worldwide for governments against a powerful industry.
However, without Simon Chapman, Australia might not have taken the bold, pioneering step that has left cigarette firms furious and fearful for their future.
Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, is an unusual character: an academic who is better known as a campaigner, a feisty media performer who relishes debating with Big Tobacco mouthpieces, a snappy phrase-maker with a stand-up's wit and timing, and an ex-smoker who wants to smash an industry whose products he once consumed.
His 2008 paper arguing for plain packs was accepted by a preventive health taskforce, set up by the Australian Labor government, and then implemented – to the taskforce's astonishment. Chapman downplays his role. "I don't like David and Goliath metaphors and I don't like being painted as the David, " he says, aware that his instrumental role in advocating the policy, and determined campaigning in the Australian media, has seen him become a hero to anti-tobacco campaigners. "I have been one of the most prominent people making the case and attacking the industry, though there were a couple of dozen very smart researchers and activists in Australia involved, " he says.
"He's one of the great figures of tobacco control in the world, " says Deborah Arnott, director of Action on Smoking and Health. "Everyone looks to Simon Chapman, not just in Australia but in the world, for leadership on campaigning. Simon suggested plain packs to the taskforce and was the public face of campaigning for it – he's a real hotshot campaigner."
The UK campaign group will start to lobby for plain packs once the Department of Health begins its consultation on plain packaging for cigarettes, expected to be published in March. It has launched the Plain Packs Protect partnership with Smokefree South West, Cancer Research UK and other key health bodies. "Plain packs is going to be the biggest public health struggle we've seen for many years, especially as it involves taking on vested interests, " says Dr Gabriel Scally of Smokefree South West, who is also the NHS's regional director of public health for the region. "It could turn off the tap for the recruitment of many smokers in this country."
Last week, Chapman was in Bristol and London on a two-day trip to help the public health community in the UK prepare to do its utmost to ensure that Britain follows Australia's lead when the health department begins its consultation on plain packaging.
"The dominos are lining up, " Chapman says, referring to the countries that are seriously considering enforcing plain packs inside their own borders. Seventeen states, including Britain, attended a recent World Health Organisation meeting in Brunei on plain packs. New Zealand will be next, then Thailand and Panama, and possibly Canada, Chapman reckons. Britain is also "on the front of the grid", but America's first amendment makes the policy unlikely there, he says.
Chapman thinks that "Australia's historic plain cigarette packaging legislation is a weapons-grade public health policy that is causing apoplexy in the international [tobacco] industry". Australia's ban on tobacco advertising in 1992 means 19-year-olds there have never seen such promotion of smoking as is common elsewhere, and young people's smoking rates in Australia are at their lowest ever, just 2.5% of 14- to 17-year olds smoke. The figure in England is 17%. Generally, 15% of adult Australians smoke compared to 21% of Britons. "Plain packs will turbocharge this trend, making smoking history, " Chapman believes. "This is unequivocally the biggest thing ever to hit the tobacco industry – the biggest threat it's ever faced. That's why the tobacco companies are all taking court action in Australia and talking to each other, something they don't usually do, " he says.
But plain packaging will not instantly cut smoking rates, he cautions. "We're not expecting plain packaging to have much impact on existing smokers. It's a policy about the next generation of kids who are coming through, so we would expect to slowly starve the industry of new customers by de-normalising and de-glamorising their products."
It would, though, have an instant effect on tobacco firms' profits, Chapman adds. Although blind taste tests show that consumers detect little difference between most brands of cigarettes, the successful marketing of some brands as cool, or macho, or feminine, or "lite" has helped sustain a hierarchy in which premium brands sell for a lot more than budget lines, despite costing much the same to produce.
In an era of widespread bans on tobacco advertising, seductive packaging remains the last place where what Chapman calls "semiotic signalling" is maintained. Replace those colourful packets with nothing but a plain colour, the manufacturer's name and a massive health warning, and many people will stop buying the premium brands, he argues.
Big Tobacco loathes Chapman, obviously. But he is also, he adds, "a bit of a paradox to them. They dislike me intensely because of my prominence and persistence. But I also confuse them because I'm very against the censorship and rating of films because of their tobacco content. And I'm dead against banning smoking outside – I used my position on Sydney University's senate to argue against a total ban on smoking anywhere on campus, " he says.
While lauding a string of successes against Big Tobacco in many countries recently – price hikes, smoking bans, advertising bans – he doubts such tactics can be usefully used for other public health problems such as obesity. He derides any idea of plain packaging for alcohol, because it would antagonise people unnecessarily, but backs restricted opening times for pubs and clubs, graphic warnings on labels and tougher controls on licensing.
Will Britain embrace plain packs? "I'm not blind to the fact that your health minister [Andrew Lansley] is under immense attack because of what he's doing to the NHS. My observation of politicians throughout my career is that they long to imagine their retirement and the legacy they may have left. I would imagine that it would not be far from the front of his mind that he would be leaving a legacy as a destroyer [of the NHS]. If he were also to leave a legacy of plain packaging, he would unequivocally be remembered as a politician who did something good about a very big health problem, " says Chapman.
Status Married, three children.
Lives Sydney, Australia.
Education University of New South Wales (BA majoring in sociology and psychology); master's qualifying programme, Centre for Medical Education and Research Development, UNSW; PhD, department of preventive and social medicine, University of Sydney.