Australia Unveils Brand-Free Tobacco Packets

Australia’s goal of having the world’s toughest tobacco promotion laws in place by 2012 moved closer on Thursday when it released the plain packing design that all cigarette manufacturers will be forced to adopt as part of new legislation.

Cigarette in ashtray
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Cigarette in ashtray

The government wants all cigarette packets to be logo-free in a dull green color displaying graphic images of smoking-related diseases. “The only thing to distinguish one brand from another will be the brand and product name in a standard color, standard position and standard font size and style,” said Nicola Roxon, health minister.

Big tobacco companies have lobbied hard to block the changes since Canberra announced its plain packaging plan last year.

A chief concern is that other countries, including developing nations in the Asia-Pacific region that are important growth markets for tobacco companies, will follow Australia’s lead.

The Australian unit of British American Tobacco said the UK, Canada and New Zealand had considered plain packaging. “But it has never been put in place due to concerns over the legalities of such a move and the potential for huge growth in illegal black market tobacco.”

It warned that mandatory plain packaging could infringe international trademark and intellectual property laws.

“What company would stand for having its brands, which are worth billions, taken away from them?” said Scott McIntyre, a Sydney-based BAT spokesman.

Imperial Tobacco said that it would “robustly challenge” a proposal that had damaged Australia’s trade reputation because it was anti-competitive and anti-consumer.

“Organized crime will continue to strengthen its footprint in Australia because importing and selling counterfeits of plain packaged legitimate Australian brands will be easier than in any other market in the world,” it said.

It estimates the Australian government is already losing A$1.1 billion year in excise that is not collected on illicit tobacco products.

To allay industry concerns about black market cigarettes, the government said it would allow manufacturers to include anti-counterfeiting design features such as alphanumeric code markings

Mick Daube, professor of health policy at Perth’s Curtin University and a public health advocate, said that the new legislation was a milestone.

“The tobacco industry is more frantic about this than anything else in the past 20 years — that shows you how important it is,” he said.

Canberra said that smoking killed 15,000 Australians annually and put the health, economic and social costs at A$31.5 billion each year.

“The plain packaging legislation is a world first and sends a clear message that the glamour is gone. Cigarette packs will now only show the death and disease that can come from smoking,” Ms Roxon said.

The government has set aside a 60-day period for public comments on its draft legislation that it hopes to introduce into the parliament after June.

Plain packaging is part of a range of measures including tax increases and health promotion campaigns to lower smoking rates in Australia.