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Australian smokers get a rude shock

In Australia, if the smoking doesn't kill, the new cigarette packets might.

A box of cigarettes sold in Australia with the current health warnings is seen in this composite image showing the front and back of the box. Australia will force tobacco companies to adopt plain packaging, removing all color and branding logos within two years, in a world-first move aimed at cutting smoking-related deaths. (Reuters)

SYDNEY, Australia — Australia's smokers will be finding it even tougher to light up after a raft of tough new government legislation further tightened the country's already stringent restrictions on smoking.

On April 29, the Australian government — virtually overnight — announced a 25 percent hike in cigarette tax.

And in a world first, Australia has set out plans to become the first country to have plain cigarette packaging as of July 1, 2012. Cigarette packs will carry no logos, color or font variation. Instead the pack will bear the brand name and a graphic photo depicting the gruesome consequences of smoking.

"The new branding for cigarettes will be the most hard-line regime in the world and cigarette companies will hate it," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a press conference.

The measure has the backing of the World Health Organization. WHO claims that packets convey a brand image such as toughness, which appeals to teenagers who are still forming their identity.

As Rudd predicted, tobacco companies responded almost immediately.

Imperial Tobacco Australia was concerned about what would happen to its brand recognition: "Introducing plain packaging just takes away the ability of a consumer to identify our brand from another brand and that's of value to us," Cathie Keogh, the brand’s spokesperson told ABC News. Keogh said Imperial Tobacco were considering its legal options. "It really affects the value of our business as a commercial enterprise and we will fight to support protecting our international property rights."

British American Tobacco Australia said it would also fight the plain-package ruling. “It commodifies our brand,” said spokesperson Louise Warburton. “It will mean that the only differentiation between types of cigarettes is price, and it will drive down prices.” Warburton believes the move will also inspire counterfeit products. “Our industry is already losing 12 percent of the market share to knock-off products,” said Warburton. “It costs taxpayers AU $600 million ($532 million) annually.”

Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon told ABC News the legislation would be written to withstand a lawsuit by the tobacco industry. "We won't be put off by the fact that tobacco companies won't like this action.”

Smoking is the most preventable cause of death and disease in Australia, according to the federal government. Every year, 15,000 Australians die as a result of the habit. In 2007, 16.6 percent of Australians over the age of 14 were smokers and the government wants the rate to drop to 10 percent by 2018. Rudd plans to generate 5 billion Australian dollars ($4.4 billion) in the next four years from cigarette taxes and wants to use this money to fund overhauls of hospitals and the health system.