Standard packs reduce tobacco sales in Australia

In collaboration with the Press Association

Australia’s tobacco packaging laws have helped to reduce the amount of tobacco smoked in the country, official figures show.

“The hard-won experience of Australia must inform the UK Government that industry arguments cannot be trusted" - George Butterworth, Cancer Research UK

Around 3.4 billion Australian dollars (£1.9bn) were spent in the country on cigarettes and tobacco between December 2013 and March 2014, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

This is nearly one billion Australian dollars (£560 million) less than 10 years ago.

The ABS figures also show that the volume of cigarettes and tobacco consumed in the period fell to its lowest level since 1959.

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry is claiming that the figures have been wrongly interpreted. According to its own data, cigarette sales in Australia actually increased in 2013 for the first time in five years.

George Butterworth, Cancer Research UK’s tobacco policy manager, said: “These official government figures prove that tobacco industry arguments just don’t add up when they claim that standard packs have failed in Australia and are causing a rise in smoking.

"Tobacco company research uses questionable methodology, often finding results which are different to official figures, and are moulded to an agenda to oppose effective tobacco control measures."

Since Australia's Tobacco Plain Packaging Act was passed in 2011, the global tobacco industry has waged a campaign aimed at discrediting the evidence that standard packs work.

British American Tobacco (BAT), Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris – the big tobacco firms in Australia – claim they witnessed a rise in their combined sales equating to an extra 59 million cigarettes sold last year.

The industry also says that smuggling is on the rise, after a report by KPMG – which was financed by tobacco firms – found a rise in illegal consumption in Australia, from 11.8 per cent in 2012 to 13.9 per cent last year.

However, the Australian customs service said in its annual report for 2012-13 that the threat posed by smuggling in the country “remained relatively stable” in 2013.

As the first country to introduce standardised packaging laws, Australia currently finds itself at the centre of a debate on the effectiveness of such rules.

The tobacco industry is mounting a fight against the law, with Canberra facing several legal challenges from tobacco-producing countries at the World Trade Organisation.

The sector already lost a legal case in Australia, where it claimed that the plain-packaging laws breached tobacco firms’ rights and restrict free trade.

Ireland has become the latest country to pledge the introduction of plain-packaging legislation, following the example of Australia and New Zealand.

In the UK, the ABS data could provide fresh arguments for anti-smoking campaigners, who say that time is running out to implement plain-packaging laws before the next election.

More than 600 doctors and nurses have just sent an open letter to David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, urging them to publish a consultation on whether or not tobacco products should be sold in plain, standardised packaging.

Cancer Research UK's George Butterworth, said: “The hard-won experience of Australia must inform the UK Government that industry arguments cannot be trusted, and that official figures and the support of the public health community should inform decisions on health policy."