Plain packaging - A landmark victory against Big Tobacco

In 2012, Australia made world history in the fight against Big Tobacco with the introduction of plain packaging. But a law that changed the tobacco industry forever was no easy win - and the fight didn’t stop there.

Less than forty years ago, smoking was a normal part of Aussie life and cigarette brands were freely advertised across the country. Today, all cigarette packs come in unbranded plain packaging with large graphic health warnings, and smoking rates are at a record low – largely thanks to the drive and expertise of Cancer Council and our partners.

Long before Australia’s plain packaging legislation, Cancer Council and our partners were alert to the lethal influence of Big Tobacco. As the leading cause of preventable cancer death in Australia, tobacco has long been a focus of Cancer Council.

Over decades of campaigning, we helped Australia join the front line of global tobacco control. Our approach to overcoming tobacco included a wide focus - from a more effective tobacco tax regime, national and state antismoking campaigns, smoke-free places, through to reforms in tobacco advertising and in retail. Starting with the phasing out of tobacco advertising from 1976, governments increasingly hardened their stance against tobacco advertising, but there was one key touch point that remained - the cigarette pack itself.

Putting plain packaging on the agenda

While plain packaging of tobacco products might seem new compared with other initiatives to reduce the harms of smoking, Cancer Council published a summary of the evidence and called for plain packaging as early as 1993. Back then, around 27% of Australian adults smoked daily and plain packaging was just one of many urgent reforms Cancer Council and our allies were pushing for.

Building upon earlier experimental studies conducted overseas, a team of Cancer Council Victoria researchers led by Professor Melanie Wakefield showed a strong link between reduced branding on cigarette packaging and people’s more negative appraisal of cigarettes. Their evidence indicated that removing all branding on cigarette packages would dramatically change the relationship between smokers and cigarettes.

Talking with policy makers

It wasn’t until 2009 that a new National Preventative Health Taskforce, including many of Cancer Council’s longest-serving staff and committee members, submitted a bold recommendation to government – plain tobacco packaging, to stop the tobacco industry from using its slick packaging as a mobile billboard.

The recommendation was supported and Cancer Council even got a prototype plain cigarette pack into the hands of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – which he used for his landmark plain packaging announcement, alongside Health Minister Nicola Roxon, in April 2010.

Evidence and advocacy triumph over tobacco industry subversion

Draft plain packaging laws were tabled in parliament. The tobacco industry went into overdrive to undermine the proposed legislation, funding aggressive campaigns and presenting unfounded arguments in parliament – which was just another indication that plain packaging would work.

Meanwhile, Cancer Council stepped up its efforts to help ensure members of parliament of all persuasions understood the landmark public health opportunity before them.

Through its work in tobacco control, Cancer Council has really created an understanding that governments need to be actively involved in cancer prevention.

Dr Sarah White, Director
Quit Cancer Council Victoria

Finally, after a lengthy industry campaign and parliamentary inquiry, all eyes were on Australia as we passed the world’s first plain packaging laws, with the full support of the parliament, in September 2011.

The legal battle against Big Tobacco

But the tobacco industry wasn’t finished, launching legal challenges claiming that the plain packaging laws were illegal across several areas of law – they argued that it simply couldn’t legally be done.

Cancer Council embarked on another public health world first, jointly establishing the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer with the Union for International Cancer Control. The McCabe Centre played, and continues to play, an important role in legal work and capacity-building supporting tobacco plain packaging, in Australia and beyond.

The world’s first Tobacco Plain Packaging Act

After a significant High Court challenge was dismissed, and almost twenty years after Cancer Council first publicly called for it, Australia became the first country in the world to implement plain packaging in December 2012.

The health implications were significant. Importantly, surveys undertaken by Cancer Council found a significant drop in cigarette brand appeal, more noticing of health warnings and likelihood of smokers making quit attempts. In the years between 2012-2015 a government study found around 25% of the decline in smoking prevalence in Australia was attributable to plain packaging. Three years after full implementation an estimated 100,000 less Australians smoked.

And the world continued to take notice. After closely following Australia’s experience, by 2019 16 countries, including the United Kingdom and New Zealand, have introduced and adopted plain packaging, and numerous other countries are progressing towards it. Today, over 20 more countries have started investigations into adopting plain packaging locally.

Both Cancer Council and the McCabe Centre continue to play an important role in supporting this change around the world, sharing Australia’s experience as a global leader in tobacco control and strengthening legal knowledge so countries can introduce effective laws to improve health outcomes, such as tobacco plain packaging, and defend them when they are challenged.

McCabe Centre has made an enormous contribution to tobacco control globally to improve health outcomes and protect lives.

Associate Professor Jonathan Liberman
Director, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer

Today, tobacco plain packaging forms an integral part of Australia’s comprehensive set of tobacco control measures, many led by Cancer Council. While there is still much to do, Cancer Council will not stop until smoking has been made history.

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