Move to change law in Scotland will face same well-funded opposition as in Australia, warns Sheila Duffy
In June, ASH Scotland ran an international conference and welcomed delegates from the United States, South-east Asia, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and from across Europe.
They came to Scotland to hear about our work in tackling tobacco and to share their experiences with us.
At the start of our conference we heard that globally, tobacco use has killed around 100 million people in the 20th century, much more than all deaths in the First and Second World Wars combined. In the 21st century the death toll could easily reach one billion. Even for smokers who consume ten or fewer cigarettes a day, their life expectancy is on average five years shorter and their lung cancer risk is up to 20 times higher than in never-smokers. We believe the work we do saves lives.
We discussed a wide range of topics over the two day event, from smoking in pregnancy to how tobacco keeps people poor; from tackling the illicit tobacco trade to appropriate regulation for e-cigarettes; from the possible consequences of international trade agreements on people’s health to the devastating exploitation of tobacco farmers by the industry that employs them. Our conference gave us the chance to compare experiences with and learn from people working on similar issues in very different cultural contexts.
As the Westminster government has this year committed to bringing in legislation for standardised, plain tobacco packaging throughout the UK (the Scottish Government has been committed to this measure since 2013), I was particularly interested to hear from colleagues from nations like Ireland, New Zealand and Finland who like us are committed to bringing in plain packs legislation, and in particular interested to hear from Australian colleagues for whom tobacco has been served in sludge green packs with boring fonts and prominent picture health warnings since December 2012.
Professor Melanie Wakefield shared Australia’s experiences as the first and so far the only nation in the world to introduce standardised tobacco packaging. It was encouraging to hear that smokers said they were less inclined to pick up plain packs. Her stories about the tobacco industry’s manipulative and obstructive responses to this legislation, and their strident predictions of economic disaster should it be implemented, sounded very familiar from our own experiences of progressing smoke-free laws in Scotland. In Australia, a thorough body of careful and well-designed research work has shown that the industry’s predicted dire consequences have failed to materialise. Two and a half years down the line, all the signs are reassuring.
Despite industry claims being disproved in Australia, I expect them to be deployed here when our own legislative debate kicks off, so it’s worth a quick look at what we might hear.
I’d like to pick out just two of the dire consequences predicted by the tobacco industry and its commercial allies in Australia. These were messages that seem crafted to scaremonger small businesses and to seek to intimidate elected representatives out of following through on their democratic decision. Big Tobacco and its commercial allies said there would be disruption to small businesses and catastrophic losses; and they predicted there would be an explosion in counterfeiting and in the illicit tobacco trade. Both are terrifying predictions for small businesses struggling on the margins of survival, and both messages were amplified by orchestrated front groups and paid-for public relations companies.
Tobacco companies claimed finding plain packs on shelves would increase retailer transaction times and put customers off. Researchers found on average ahead of plain packaging being introduced, it took between ten and 11 seconds to retrieve a branded pack in shops. It took a second or so longer immediately after the introduction of standardised packaging but within a week or two retrieval times had returned to normal. There was no change in the percentage of smokers purchasing their tobacco from small businesses.
According to researchers and the Australian government, illicit tobacco did not increase following the introduction of plain packs. More than two years on, the proportion of illicit tobacco seized that is in plain packs is hardly worth counting.
Of course the industry has not given up – probably in large part because it is fighting tooth and nail against this effective measure being adopted elsewhere. Big Tobacco is still trying to trip up the Australian legislation, through ongoing costly challenges under international trade and intellectual property treaties. It is trying to go under it and round it by spicing up the brand names, and throwing extra free cigarettes into packs.
In Australia as in Scotland, the tobacco industry has a poor track record with the truth and a proven drive to put its profits far above the people who buy and those who retail its lethal products.
• Sheila Duffy is chief executive of Ash Scotland www.ashscotland.org.uk