Australia is set to become the first country in the world to introduce plain cigarette packaging in a plan that has enraged tobacco giants.
This week, the parliament's lower house passed two bills aimed at banning tobacco company product branding. The legislation, which dictates that cigarette packets must be a uniform olive green with the name of the brand in small, standard type, is expected to pass the upper house in the coming weeks.
The new law is set to reduce smoking rates to below 10 per cent. It says packets will be plastered in graphic health warnings and will not be allowed to bear any tobacco company logos. Nicola Roxon, the health minister said, “This is the first very courageous step that our parliament has taken to introduce plain packaging… We're going to be the first country around the world to introduce it. January 1 is the start date and it looks like the legislation will be well and truly passed by then.”
Tobacco companies are unhappy with the turn of events to say the least. They claim there is no evidence that plain packaging will reduce smoking rates and argue that it could spark a rise in illegal tobacco, known as ‘chopchop’. British American Tobacco Australia is now weighing up whether to seek an urgent hearing the the High Court in a last-ditch bid to release confidential government legal advice on plain packaging that it hopes might influence the upper house vote.
Steve Hambleton, the Australian Medical Association president, has urged senators to get support the bill when it reaches the upper house. He said, “This legislation will save lives. And we have to send a message to Big Tobacco that people's lives are more important than their profits.”
Some 15,000 Australians die of smoking-related diseases every year. The government estimates that tobacco use costs the country AUD$31.5 billion annually in healthcare and lost productivity.
New Zealand, Canada and Britain have considered a similar approach.
Opposition parliamentary secretary on health Andrew Southcott said the coalition always supported sensible measures to reduce smoking and that included plain packaging. “The suggestion that the coalition is soft on tobacco companies is just plain nonsense…I believe that plain packaging will have an impact on the smoking rates within Australia. I believe it will reduce the number of people who take up smoking,” he said. But he questioned the need to include a so-called “Henry the Eighth clause”, which would allow the health minister to draft regulations to override the actual legislation. Mr Southcott said this was exceptionally uncommon, went against the basic legal principle that law trumped regulation and should only be used as a last resort.
Fellow Liberal Alex Hawke doubted it would work, as did Nationals MP George Christensen. “I've got news for the minister for health and the government - life kills people. It's a dangerous activity, life. There are no laws we can pass to prevent that,” Mr Hawke said. Mr Christensen said the “fun police” didn't want people to enjoy a drink or play poker and certainly not smoke. “It's as if there's this little Julie or Nicola in an olive green uniform there on your shoulder…And when she's not telling you what to do, she's making a sneaky grab on your wallet,” he said.