Health groups have backed the federal government’s crackdown on cigarette promotion, but business says the move will be costly and risks legal action from tobacco companies.
Under the proposed law, Australia would become the first country in the world to require tobacco products to be sold in unattractive plain packaging to reduce their appeal to consumers, federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon announced on Thursday.
Cigarette packets would be matte olive green – the colour found to be least appealing to smokers – have no obvious logos and carry large pictures of the physical damage caused by smoking.
“This plain packaging legislation is a world first and sends a clear message that the glamour is gone – cigarette packs will now only show the death and disease that can come from smoking,” Ms Roxon said.
Have Your Say on the plan
Plain packaging was one of a number of government measures aimed at reducing the toll on families from 15,000 smoking-related deaths and associated costs of $31.5 billion a year, she added.
The draft law was welcomed by health groups but criticised by retailers and tobacco companies, which had flagged potential legal action that could result in billions of dollars in compensation.
Ms Roxon said the government would not be scared by potential legal action from “big tobacco” companies and called on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to support the bill.
“There is a clear question for Mr Abbott today: will you join with the Gillard government, or will you continue to be in the pocket of big tobacco and accept their donations?” she said.
But opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton said there were “a lot of question marks” around the proposed law.
“They’ve announced this three times, but they still haven’t given the detail which shows this would actually reduce smoking rates,” he told reporters in Perth.
The coalition’s current position is that while it backs measures to reduce smoking, it wants to see evidence that plain packaging cuts smoking rates.
“If this debate is about hope and she is putting forward a proposal based on hope, I think Australians would want to see evidence,” Mr Dutton said.
Global cigarette makers Philip Morris, Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco Australia (BATA) on Thursday said the law would infringe international trademark and intellectual property laws.
“The government could end up wasting millions of taxpayers’ dollars in legal fees trying to defend their decision, let alone the potential to pay billions to the tobacco industry for taking away our intellectual property,” BATA spokesman Scott McIntyre said.
The Australian Industry Group said that while it “strongly supports” objectives to reduce smoking, the plain packaging guidelines raised “broad and serious industry concerns”.
The Australian Retailers Association said the proposal was “unnecessary” and would be costly for retailers.
But Ms Roxon said the government would fight on.
“We believe we are on very strong legal grounds,” she told journalists in Sydney.
“We might be breaking ground but we are on firm ground and others will follow us.”
Health and anti-smoking groups, including Cancer Council Australia, Ash, Heart Foundation, Quit and the Australian Medical Association, said the measure would save lives and improve the health of thousands of Australians.
Cancer Council Australia chief executive Professor Ian Olver said he believed many young people would be deterred from taking up smoking.
“We believe it will be effective,” he told AAP.
The legislation is due to be introduced into parliament in the winter and, if passed, will become law on January 1, 2012.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand government has welcomed the Australian move.
“It is my expectation that New Zealand will inevitably follow their lead and look to introduce the plain packaging of tobacco products,” said Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia.
The New Zealand government had already announced it would monitor progress on Australia’s proposal and explore the option of making a similar move, she added.
“This government is very serious about reducing the harm caused by smoking and it is vital that we do more to help people quit smoking and stop young people from being tempted to take up the habit.”