by Christian Edwards
SYDNEY, Jan. 14 (Xinhua) -- Tobacco companies are claiming that a spike in smokers trying to quit cigarettes after Australia's introduction of plain cigarette packaging is a case of smoke and mirrors, with British American Tobacco Australia, Tuesday, citing stable sales and even an increase in the use of illegal cigarettes.
The world-first plain packaging policy, introduced nationwide in October 2012 under the government of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has been hailed as a groundbreaking initiative in the fight against tobacco.
Professor Ian Oliver, CEO of Cancer Council Australia, told Xinhua new research shows that tobacco plain packaging is gaining solid traction as one of a number of measures which aim to decrease the smoking rates in Australia.
"The cigarette packet was one of the last forms of tobacco advertising. Plain packaging's main aim was to make the packaging less attractive so that potential new smokers were less likely to be attracted to the deadly habit. However, early research has also indicated that the new packaging is also deterring existing smokers.
That research has taken the form of a nine-year analysis of incoming calls to Quitline a free service that serves to aid smokers kick the habit, with a focus on the impact plain packaging has on the number of calls while factoring in other extraneous variables from anti-tobacco advertising campaigns, the price of tobacco, and the social impact of events including new year resolutions.
Oliver told Xinhua that the introduction of plain packaging resulted in a massive 78 percent increase in calls to Quitlines across Australia and that this increase was sustained.
"Statistical modeling to screen out the impact of these factors found plain packaging triggered a 78 percent jump in weekly calls to Quitline NSW from 363 in the week before plain packaging began on Oct. 1, 2012, to 651 four weeks later," Professor Oliver said.
Researchers at the Cancer Council noted that the effect lasted for about 10 months, during which calls gradually decreased to roughly the same levels before the new packs hit the market.
Professor Oliver said it was evident that plain packaging will translate into declining smoking rates in the longer term.
"When combined with tax increases, the government's target of reducing smoking incidence to 10 percent by 2018 is achievable."
The researchers identified a similar statistical rise following the introduction of graphic images and health warnings accompanying the Quitline contact number on packs in 2006. At that time, calls leapt 84 percent almost doubling from 910 to 1,673 within a three-month period.
However, Scott McIntyre with the British American Tobacco Australia Ltd (BATA) dismissed the research with BATA suggesting that there had been no corresponding decline in sales outside the steadily decreasing sales tobacco companies have been experiencing worldwide.
"There's been a steady decline in smoking rates for many years of nearly 3 percent per year. During the period that plain packing has been in place this decline has halted slightly so that the rate is closer to 2 percent."
When the federal controversial law came into full force in late 2012, tobacco branding was completely banned and 75 percent of the packs had to be covered in graphic health warnings.
Tobacco companies here have claimed that the laws have actually played into the hands of the black market trade in cigarettes.
"After a year of implementation the plain packaging experiment is not working and has had no impact on legal tobacco volumes. Since plain packaging was introduced on Dec. 1 last year, legal cigarettes sales overall have remained very stable while illegal sales have increased, suggesting Australians are actually smoking more." McIntyre told Xinhua.
With other national governments watching the outcome, the authors of the study released this week in the Medical Journal of Australia said the indications were strong that other countries would benefit from the policy.
"Australia has taken a lead on mandating plain packaging, now supported by evidence of an immediate impact of this legislation. This should encourage other countries that are preparing similar legislation," they noted.
The researchers maintain that despite the measurement of calls to Quitline representing an "indirect" study of people's smoking behavior, it was "more objective than community surveys" where people can answer questions in a socially desirable and biased way.
They said it was also difficult to know whether increased calls were caused by the larger graphic health warnings that came into effect with plain packaging, rather than plain packaging itself.
The tough new laws drew a direct response from big tobacco companies with numerous legal battles brewing with the Australian government in the firing line for breaching the long-standing Hong Kong-Australia Bilateral Investment Treaty, which could see the Australian legislation overturned or companies being awarded compensation for the loss of brand and investment.
Speaking from Sydney, where smokers are being corralled into ever tighter public spaces, McIntyre said that Australia's "plain packaging experiment had been a failure."
"It's not delivering its intended purpose. This is even more telling with a huge quit smoking advertising campaign from the government and the two CPI excise increases since the failed policy was implemented."
That may be determined in the coming year when a Department of Health study of smokers here will be released in December with data on the short- and long-term effects of the new laws hotly anticipated.