By: Madeline Rose
This past year the Australian government has taken an unconventional move to sever the line of communication between tobacco companies and consumers. On December 1st, it became mandatory that cigarette companies sell their merchandise in plain, olive-brown packaging without company logos. The only splash of color will be from harsh photographs of deteriorating lungs and other depictions of the dangers of smoking. If customers want to determine which brand they’re buying, they’ll have to look at the generic text on the underside of the box.
The first nation in the world to introduce the restriction, the action is only the latest in a series of aggressive tactics on the part of the Australian government against cigarette marketing. Across the board, all television and radio tobacco advertisements were banned in 1976. The same restrictions fell on print media in 1989 and sponsorship of sporting and cultural events by tobacco companies were banned in 1992. Their last mode of communication, their packaging designs and logos, came onto the chopping block in May of 2011 when former health minister Nicola Roxon led a campaign focusing on the effect of the designs on children. This resulted in the legislation banning colorful designs and logos in addition to mandating that a minimum of 75% of the front of the packaging must be devoted to the display of graphic anti-smoking images.
In response to this new packaging, current consumers are buying cases to hold cigarettes just to avoid the confrontational pictures. However, the aim of the anti-smoking groups and government efforts is not to sway current smokers. The true goal is to deglamorize the product and prevent new smokers from starting the habit. With roughly 80% of regular smokers taking it up by their 18th birthday and 99% beginning before they hit 26, the Australian government wants to prevent young people from starting altogether. One of the most pervasive studies in the push to pass the legislation was a video by Cancer Council Australia which showed findings wherein children analyzed cigarette boxes and talked about what they liked about them. Having decreased the amount of smokers from 50% in the 1950s to 16% of the overall population today, the government hopes to lower the number to less than 10% by 2018. They hope to do so with the concentrated effort on communicating to young people.
Of course, the ban is not without controversy or criticism. Tobacco companies complain that the law is unconstitutional in that it undermines their intellectual property rights by banning their production of personal brands and trademarks. They met the threats of legislation with a media campaign explaining the potential for counterfeit cigarettes and the dangers behind smoking illegal products. This past August the warnings fell on deaf ears, however, as the government won their case for the bans in the High Court. Cigarette companies have gone on record to say that they will comply with the regulations in spite of seeing their country strip them of their due property rights. While the government has said that in the transition period it will not crusade against a few packets of old cigarettes being sold here and there, corporations committing large and deliberate violations of the law will be met with fines of more than $1 million dollars.
In return, the global tobacco industry has obviously been watching the events in Australia with bitten nails. While the Australian constitution is a unique entity to so easily allow for the bans, other countries are taking notice. At present the United States dictates that the FDA has control over ingredients and the size of mandatory warning labels on tobacco products. Companies have had to eliminate misleading language such as “mild” from their labels and crushed advertisements that may be construed as advertising products to children. Whether or not the crusade against cigarette advertising in the United States will or should end in complete communication alienation shall remain to be seen.