Has tobacco plain packaging actually worked, asks Neil McKeganey
Since announcing in 2012 that all tobacco products had to be packaged in plain form, bearing large graphic health warnings, but with no brand imagery, the Australian government has been under a legal requirement to provide a review of the impact of the policy.
The clear aim of the plain packaging policy was to reduce smoking prevalence by – reducing the appeal of branded cigarette packs to young people, by removing the brand imagery that might make it that much harder for smokers to quit their habit, and by removing the various logos and colouring that might convey the impression that some cigarettes are less harmful than others.
Siggins Miller, a private consultancy firm funded by the Australian government to contribute to the review, has been carrying out a survey of Australians asking them about their views of plain packaging. But the Siggins Miller review is all about what people think plain packaging may have achieved in changing smoking perceptions, rather than assessing whether it has worked to reduce smoker numbers.
Professor Simon Chapman, one of Australia’s leading tobacco control advocates and a bullish supporter of plain packaging, has stated that plain packaging ‘might well function as a “slow burn”, distal negative factor against smoking, [rather] than as a precipitating proximal factor.’
Dr Olivia Maynard, one of the UK’s leading tobacco control researchers, is now echoing the line being taken by Chapman and others that plain packaging should not be seen as a stand-alone policy in itself: ‘Despite the expected benefits of plain packaging, it is important to remember that it will be most effective as part of a comprehensive tobacco control strategy that includes other policies, such as access to stop-smoking services, restrictions on sales to young people and effective taxation.’
If Chapman and Maynard are right, we may never know what impact the policy has had over and above the other tobacco control measures that have been robustly adopted in Australia. Not knowing whether it has actually reduced smoker numbers will not satisfy countries that are considering whether they too should follow the Australian government in implementing a similar policy.
Neil McKeganey is director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research, Glasgow