Australia’s Smack Down on Tobacco
I’m a former smoker. I quit about six years ago. Theo quit 20 years ago. My sister is a smoker. My father has smoked since he was a teen. Besides them, I know about five or six other cigarette smokers. Since Florida banned statewide smoking in 2003, I’ve seen a decrease in smoking among my friends. When one person quits, it starts an avalanche because smokers hang out with other smokers and non-smokers soon realize they don’t want their hair and clothing to reek of cigarettes all the time. Now that tobacco companies are no longer allowed to advertise the false health benefits of smoking and we’ve become more educated about the dangers of it, many of us decide we’d rather not kill ourselves prematurely if we can try to avoid it.
One thing I quickly noticed the first time I entered an Australian drug store and supermarket was the lack of cigarettes. I asked Theo about this and he explained that there is a ban on tobacco displays. This is in sharp contrasts to the walls of cigarettes behind drugstore and supermarket counters all over the U.S.
As you might imagine, tobacco companies wouldn’t be very happy about such a ban. When it comes to smoking, advertising is key. Displays are meant to influence attitudes about smoking and weaken the resolve not to smoke by normalizing smoking and providing a visual cue that triggers the impulse to smoke. While contemporary ads no longer tout how smoking can be good for you, greater tobacco advertising often portrays smoking as fun, sexy, cool, and glamorous.
Despite that tobacco companies claim that smoking is about an informed adult decision, the primary target for addiction is not adults, but minors. Most smokers start before turning 18. According to Quit Victoria, 19% of children 16-19 are current smokers.
If the ban on displays wasn’t enough, Australia has given the tobacco industry another big blow. This week, the High Court upheld the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act , which says that tobacco products must be in plain packaging without logos and bear graphic health warnings as of December.
Australia is the first country to roll out plain packaging and so we don’t yet have any direct and concrete evidence about its effectiveness. However, we know from the tobacco industry’s own internal documents that packaging is an important part of cigarette promotion and plain packs are significantly less attractive. Pilot studies have shown than plain packaging increased negative attitudes about smoking and behaviors such as hiding the pack, smoking less around others, and increased thinking about quitting.
I have mixed feelings about anti-smoking campaigns. On the one hand, I hear the criticism that such campaigns undermine individual freedom and personal responsibility. On the other hand, our ability to make a smart and free choice is chipped away by constant and manipulative advertising. Plus smoking is an addiction; claiming your sovereignty from it can be extremely difficult. Targeting children is downright dirty. And, of course, smoking is a public health issue. It is the leading cause of preventable disease in the world. In Victoria, the estimated social cost of smoking is about 5-billion dollars a year.
What do you think of plain packaging? Is it a good step towards decreasing smoking or an infringement on our rights? Should other countries adopt plain packaging?
About the images: The featured image is by Alan Pryke for The Sunday Telegraph. The vintage ads come from the Stanford School of Medicine’s research on the impact of tobacco advertising.