Australian smokers get a rude shock

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.

Health advocates welcomed the new anti-smoking laws. “It eradicates the last vestiges of advertising,” said Ian Olver the CEO of the Australian Cancer Council. “The color of the pack attracts young, new smokers, and clashes with the photos of health warnings.”

Olver said raising cigarette taxes had traditionally been very effective in reducing smoking rates. “For every 10 percent increase in price, the amount of smokers in the country drops by 3 percent," he said. "Most Australian smokers want the prices to go up because it will encourage them to quit.”

Before the price of cigarettes went up by 2.16 Australian dollars ($1.99) at midnight on April 29, smokers crowded supermarkets and newsagents in order to stockpile.

Smoking has been virtually banned from enclosed spaces in Australia since 2007. Sydney’s most famous beach, Bondi, has had a smoking ban since 2004, and smoking is routinely prohibited on sidewalks near outdoor eating areas.

Since 2006, cigarettes in Australia have been required to display a graphic photograph depicting the effects of smoking. The images must appear on 30 percent of the front of the packet, and 90 percent of the back. These have ranged from photos of fat oozing out of blocked aortas to photographs of gums barely able to adhere to their teeth. These images are likely to be the only color visible on the new packaging.

The proposed packaging is unlikely to prevent smoking, said Paul Harrison, a senior lecturer in advertising and consumer behavior at Deakin Business School. Instead it will break down the tie between the consumer and the brand. “The perception of flavor comes from the packaging, we have an emotional response to it, that isn’t rational," he said. "It’s the same with the way we distinguish the similar types of soft drinks.

“Now it will take more cognitive effort to decide between Winfield and Marlboro when they both look exactly the same on the supermarket shelf. The effect will be small on current smokers, but it might alter their attachment to a particular brand.”

Harrison, however, said that as one of many anti-smoking policies it would work. “There is a big social shift occurring. It’s becoming harder and harder for people to smoke, and less people will tolerate smokers. It’s a hardcore habit to keep up now. Most smokers will have to be really committed to their cause.”