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Plain packing - the fight against big tobacco continues
June 11, 2016, 4:21 pm

One of the biggest threats to public life comes not from wars, disease or natural catastrophes, but from the tobacco epidemic that claims more than six million lives every year.

To put this figure in perspective: The Vietnam War which raged for 20 years from 1955 to 1975, and considered the war with highest casualty figures in recent times, claimed 3.5 million lives. The 2004 tsunami, which wreaked havoc across landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, claimed nearly 250,000 lives; the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa ended with a death toll of around 12,000. While all these deaths were no doubt regrettable, the fact remains that even as we read this, tobacco blatantly continues to kill at the rate of over 16,000 people every day.

If the tobacco industry were individuals, they would have been hauled before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity; if it were a country, it would at least be subject to international sanctions. But by operating as a business venture from different countries and support from powerful political lobbies, the global tobacco industry has remained invulnerable to legal actions.

The tobacco industry likes to portray itself as the supplier of a legal consumer product used for a widely-enjoyed social habit by adults who are fully aware of the risks and choose to take them to experience the pleasures. However, this whole picture of a benign tobacco industry falls flat when one realizes that without nicotine addiction to keep smokers hooked for life, and without glamorous advertisements to lure in young smokers to replace dead smokers, there would be no tobacco industry. The truth is the tobacco industry is in the business of selling a drug that kills.

Repeated reports by the World Health Organization (WHO), scientific institutions and the medical fraternity have failed to deter the tobacco industry from irresponsibly plying its deadly products. Numerous studies on the deleterious effects of tobacco have shown that:

There are more than 4000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, of which at least 250 are known to be harmful and more than 50 are known to cause cancer.

Half of all tobacco users are killed by illnesses related to the usage.

Over 6 million deaths from tobacco use are reported each year. This figure is expected to increase to 10 million by 2020.

Of the 6 million deaths, 5 million are a result of direct tobacco usage, while nearly 750,000 deaths (a quarter of them children) are caused by inhaling second-hand smoke.

Nearly 80 percent of the world’s smokers now live in low- and middle-income countries, where the burden of tobacco-related illnesses and death is heaviest on families.

Tobacco users who die prematurely deprive their families of income, raise the cost of health care and hinder economic development.

Despite these staggering statistics, the tobacco industry callously spends over US$9 billion on advertising their deadly product. To put it in context, this figure is more than the combined GDP of many of the poorest countries in the world and works out to more than $1 million being spent every hour of the day on glamorizing and promoting a product that kills people.

It is against this background that the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which came into force in 2005 and reaffirmed the right of all people to the highest standard of health, recommends pictorial warnings on cigarette packs. But more than a decade later, multinational tobacco companies, led by those based in the United States have successfully thwarted attempts to implement pictorial warnings in many countries.

Under pressure from the powerful tobacco lobby, the United States, one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of tobacco, has not even been able to ratify the FCTC, let alone introduce any meaningful tobacco usage prevention measures. Though the US introduced warnings on cigarette packs way back in 1966, the tobacco industry has tenaciously fought any attempt to regulate it. Most recently, the industry managed to get a court ruling in its favor against attempts by the Federal Drug Administration to impose pictorial warnings on cigarette packs.

Despite strong objections and obfuscations from the tobacco industry, the World Health Organization is determined to fully implement the FCTC, especially Article 13 of the Framework, which provides guidelines on the advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products. The Article states that cigarettes and other tobacco products should be sold only in plain packaging; meaning that there should be no advertising or promotion inside or attached to the package or on individual cigarettes or other tobacco products. The Article specifically prohibits the use of logos, colors, brand images or promotional information on packaging other than brand names and product names displayed in a standard two color format and prescribed font style.

Australia became the first country to fully implement plain packaging in December 2012. Ireland, France and the United Kingdom have passed laws to begin implementing plain packaging from May 2016. Australia’s post-implementation review found that introduction of plain packaging together with introduction of larger health warnings and new warnings had reduced smoking prevalence in Australia beyond the pre-existing downward trend. Specifically, the report estimated that between December 2012 and September 2015, the packaging changes reduced average smoking prevalence among Australians aged 14 years.

Aware of the impact that ‘plain packaging’ could have on their business, the tobacco industry has resorted to its time-tested ploy of alleging that it would affect their sales and increase illicit trade in tobacco products, the same argument they have used in the past to block the implementation of other tobacco control measures, such as tax increases and pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs. However there is no rational evidence to support this argument as cigarette sales and profits have consistently gone up and nothing in ‘plain packaging’  format stops tobacco companies from using anti-counterfeiting devices on their products.

While eliminating illicit trade in tobacco is desirable from the health aspect, as it will reduce the harmful consumption of tobacco by restricting availability of cheap and unregulated alternatives, this needs international collaboration. Ironically, the tobacco industry has never signed up to the WHO sponsored FCTC Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.

But this is not surprising. While publicly decrying illicit trade, the tobacco industry’s internal documents, released as a result of court cases, clearly show that the industry has worked behind-the-scenes to actively foster the illicit trade globally. The industry needs the illicit trade to bypass taxes and uses it as a bogey to misleadingly argue and block implementation of tobacco control measures.

On World No Tobacco Day 2016, (May 31), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Governments around the world to implement one simple measure with proven effectiveness in tobacco control: the plain packaging of tobacco products. “It can reduce demand for these deadly products and, in turn, save lives,” said the Secretary-General. “Plain packaging reduces the attractiveness of tobacco products. It kills the glamour, which is appropriate for a product that kills people,” added WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan.

Plain packaging is meant to be a demand reduction measure that serves several purposes, including reducing the attractiveness of tobacco products, eliminating the effects of tobacco packaging as a form of advertising and promotion, and increasing the noticeability and effectiveness of health warnings.  But ‘plain packaging’ should be seen as only an incremental step in the continued fight against Big Tobacco and its unhampered sale of a deadly product. 

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