Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 2 - September 2010
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Marketing of tobacco products

The Australian government wants plain cigarette packages starting 2012


by Pierre Croteau


By July 1, 2012, the packaging of tobacco products sold in Australia will be required without logotypes, brand images, distinctive colours or advertising copy, other than the name of the product and the brand written in the same place on the packaging, in letters of standard size, style and colour, this according to an announcement by Australia’s Labor Party government on April 29.


If this project is realized, Australia will become the first country in the world to bring into effect a guideline of the World Health Organization Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) that prescribes plain packaging for tobacco products. The FCTC is an international treaty ratified by 167 countries, including Canada and Australia, as well as the European Community. The Australian Minister for Health and Aging, Nicola Roxon, says plain packaging will remove one of the last frontiers for cigarette advertising.


The Labor government, led by Julia Gillard who succeeded former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on June 24, also proposes to enlarge the pictorial health warnings that the law requires affixed to the packaging of tobacco products. Since March 2006, the warnings cover 30-90% of the two main surfaces of a cigarette package, and the seven illustrations that shock are to be renewed every 12 months.


The Australian Parliament also voted on April 29 for a 25% increase in the excise tax on tobacco, the first increase greater than inflation in 10 years, and the government wants to allocate the entire tax revenue from tobacco to the improvement of public health and hospital services. Among the expenditures for the four coming years will be the increase in advertising to encourage the population, particularly pregnant women and the poor, to give up smoking.


The prevalence of smoking in the Australian population has been in steady decline since 1998. In 2007, 16.6% of Australians 14 years and older smoked compared to 22% of Canadians 12 years and older in the same year, according to the Canadian Community Health Survey.


Reactions and justifications


Australian cigarette manufacturers wasted no time in threatening to fight the law in court. “Introducing plain packaging just takes away the ability of a consumer to identify our brand from another one – and that’s of value to us,” stated a spokeswoman at Imperial Tobacco Australia on Australian state radio (ABC). About 98% of cigarettes legally sold in Australia are sold through the subsidiaries of Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco, three of the four multinationals that dominate the world market outside of China.


Meanwhile, sociologist Simon Chapman, professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, stated to the daily newspaper The Age, “There’s ample evidence that if you blindfold smokers, they can’t even tell their own brand.” Professor Chapman was an advisor to the National Preventive Health Taskforce that recommended to the Australian government to move forward with the requirement of plain packaging. Additionally, he is the former editor of Tobacco Control, a top scientific journal that has published several research papers showing the influence of brand colours and images on smokers’ perception of product risk and “quality.”


Researchers from various countries examined 40 million pages of internal documents that the cigarette manufacturers had to make public after legal proceedings in Minnesota in 1998. They found evidence of an experiment conducted for industry use, which revealed findings that smokers who were offered cigarettes from different cigarette packages thought they could distinguish the tastes, while all along, unbeknownst to them, they were smoking the same cigarettes.


In an article that appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health in April, three researchers, under the direction of psychologist Melanie Wakefield of the University of Melbourne, concluded that the removal of the distinctive elements of a brand, such as the colour and the graphics, changed the perceptions of the tobacco “experimenters” and of non-smokers, and not just of regular smokers. Wakefield, Durkin and Germain noted that adolescents perceived a plain cigarette package as less attractive, that a plain cigarette package lent fewer positive attributes to the typical smoker. Furthermore, they were more apprehensive about the taste of the product than when the cigarette was presented in the way the manufacturers currently present it.


In a country like Australia, where folks are pleased to say that half of all housing is less than 12 kilometres from an ocean beach, the third most popular brand, Longbeach, has graphics evoking the beach; a clear form of lifestyle advertising.


Director of Cancer Council Australia, Dr. Ian Olver, believes that the illustrated health warnings on cigarette packaging will attract greater attention in the absence of diversionary elements.


The big bluff


The Australian subsidiaries of the cigarette multinationals asserted that a ban on the use of logotypes and other brand images on the packaging of tobacco products would be a violation of their intellectual property rights, protected by the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property. Almost every time a government has considered compelling the tobacco companies to sell their products in plain cigarette packages, as occurred in Canada in 1994, the argument that the state would be forced to buy back the trademarks was one of the main influences used in the campaign of intimidation and misinformation by the tobacco cartel.


The Paris Convention, however, contains nothing to prevent the state as a contracting party, such as Canada or Australia, from banning or limiting the use of a registered trademark.


In substance, this is how the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) of Geneva responded on July 5, 1994, to a British American Tobacco lawyer who, in the name of a committee of which executives of several large cigarette manufacturers were seated, asked if a law compelling plain packaging would violate the international law on trademarks. On August 5, Ralph Oman, a former U.S. Register of Copyrights, submitted to the WIPO the legal opinion of Carla Hills, the American negotiator of the North America Free Trade Agreement, and provided to a committee of the Canadian House of Commons that plain packaging would violate the industrial property rights of the tobacco companies. On August 31, the WIPO reiterated its July 4 position: the Paris Convention offered no grounds to contest before a court of law the right of a state as a contracting party to impose plain packaging.


The long-standing collusion of the large tobacco companies in this matter, their weak position coolly concealed following the response of the WIPO in 1994, and their systematic attempt to misinform the legislatures of several countries are now known, thanks to the work initiated in 1998 by virtue of the out-of-court settlement arrived at in Minnesota that year.


The enormous bluff by the cigarette manufacturers is brilliantly reported and all their traditional arguments are countered by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSC) and the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) in submissions filed with the Australian Senate, where a private bill has been under examination since August 2009. The Labor government has decided to make the bill its own this year.


In the land up over


The Canadian Medical Association in 1987, followed in 1988 by the National Council on Tobacco or Health (now called the Canadian Council for Tobacco Control) and the NSRA, asked Ottawa for a law imposing plain packaging for tobacco products. The announcement of the Australian government’s plan provided the NSRA and PSC with another opportunity to bring the concept to light by issuing a joint communiqué in April of this year.


Since the beginning of the 21st century, in the Canadian market among others, cigarette manufacturers have attempted to change the traditional appearance of their product packaging. Not only the graphics, but also the size and format of the cigarette packages, and even the way they open and the texture of the cardboard, have been transformed.


To fully neutralize the marketing of cigarettes in Canada, the degree of standardization of cigarette packaging should go a little further than that discussed in the Australian Parliament. The NSRA and PSC are calling on the federal government to move quickly and require that all tobacco products in Canada be sold in standardized packages.