On Dec. 1, 2012, Australia became the first country to implement a law requiring all cigarette packages to have plain packaging with health warnings that cover the majority of the front (75 per cent) and back (90 per cent). A study conducted during the transition period found that consumers were more likely to associate plain packages with lower-quality tobacco, rate quitting as a higher priority in their lives and support the new packages.
This week, a National Assembly committee in Quebec is hearing from prominent speakers as it considers an update to the Quebec Tobacco Act. The Coalition québécoise pour le contrôle du tabac (the Quebec Coalition for Tobacco Control) has invited former Australian attorney-general Nicola Roxon to speak about the Australian experience. Along with Roxon and the Quebec Coalition for Tobacco Control, the committee will hear from the Canadian Cancer Society, the owners of bars, pubs and taverns and the Canadian Association of Convenience Stores, among others.
Nicola Roxon spoke with The Globe and Mail via telephone.
What points are you keen to make in Quebec this week?
Canada has actually been leading in this area and we're keen to see that continue. In countries like ours where advertising and sponsorship are banned, the tobacco industry has been using their packs to get around those laws, increasingly making them more colourful, different shapes, designed to look like your iPod or to look like a pretty little pack of tampons. The packs basically became mobile billboards and every smoker, when taking them out of their pocket or out of their purse, is really advertising to all their friends and colleagues. It is good health policy, it's good economic policy and actually it's good politics.
Is there evidence that the look of the package influences consumers?
Yes. What was presented to us was, at that stage, nearly 20 different bits of research that had tested the effect it had on people if there were different packs – if they were plain, if there were health warnings, if there were colours with the health warnings, etc. They showed that it would make a difference and, intuitively, everyone gets that. Companies spend a lot of money to design their packs for a reason.
Research shows that plain packages have an impact. What's still unknown?
What we don't yet know, because it's too early, is the impact on young or new smokers, and obviously that's the main game because people who are already severely addicted are not necessarily going to be persuaded whatever the packs are – the main focus is stopping new people from being enticed to the product.
How important was public support in the implementation of plain packing in Australia?
Often in politics you get a choice between something that you know is good policy – going to have a good health outcome – but might be a difficult thing to sell to the public.
In this instance, actually you don't have to choose – it's both good for health policy and also good for economic policy because if you can reduce the harms of tobacco you don't spend as many billions of dollars treating people with tobacco-related disease.
What were some of the barriers the tobacco companies put up in Australia?
Almost all of their complaints were proved to be untrue or unfounded. One of them was, "It's going to take retailers an awful lot of time when someone comes into the shop, they won't be able to easily find the packet because they won't be able to see which one's blue or which one's red," so they did some research timing how long it took. They got undercover customers doing this and it actually was slightly
How difficult would you describe the fight to get this implemented, on a scale from 1 being not difficult to 10 being the most difficult?
In terms of legal decision-making and ability to get it through government, it was at the 1 rather than the 10. We had very strong support across the government and Parliament. In terms of implementing it, it was probably more at 4 or 5 because it was complex. This had very visible opponents who had a lot of money to be able to spend and I think they thought they could intimidate us not to go ahead with it. So it took determination at level 20 out of 10 but the degree of difficulty actually was not that hard.
I came here to get the message through that Australia has followed Canada in so many other tobacco-control measures and we would just be keen for the Canadians to join us again at the front on this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.