The claim

“The government has decided to wait until the emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured before we make a final decision on this policy in England”

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, written statement to the House of Lords, 15 July 2013

The background

The idea of wiping brand designs off the front of fag packets has split public opinion down the middle,  the government claims.

Australia took the plunge in December 2012 and became the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging. Under Australia’s new law, graphic pictures now cover 75 per cent of the front and 90 per cent of the back of a packet, with added text warnings on the sides of the packets.

Descriptions such as “light” or “mild” cigarettes are also banned and all packets are now a drab olive-brown colour. They do still feature the brand name but no other symbols or graphics are allowed.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants to wait and see how they get on with the new look. In any case, he said, a UK-wide public consultation resulted in “highly polarised” views.

He said that 43 per cent of people favoured the “do nothing” approach – with some people pointing out there was no evidence to warrant introducing the measure.

It seems Mr Hunt is happy to join them in doing nothing. But FactCheck wonders if he is right to rest on his laurels?

The analysis

Mr Hunt neglected to mention that the majority of the people surveyed agreed with the move – 55 per cent thought that introducing plain packaging would reduce the appeal of smoking.

Many a policy has been made on lesser statistical evidence. Is Australia being particularly bold?

The Australian government says the measure “sends a clear message that the glamour is gone – cigarette packs now only show the death and disease that can come from smoking”.

And what of the evidence behind the move? A systematic review of 37 studies by the University of Stirling last year found a “remarkable consistency” in findings regarding the impact of plain packaging.

It concluded: “If and when introduced, existing evidence suggests that plain packaging represents an additional tobacco control measure that has the potential to contribute to reductions in the harm caused by tobacco smoking now and in the future.”

Sounds like a no-brainer. Except the tobacco companies aren’t happy.

It is widely acknowledged that removing brand design elements on cigarette packets is “likely to be most successful in removing cigarette brand image associations”, said the Cancer Council in Australia.

Meanwhile, research by London Economics found that plain packets “reduces the willingness of consumers to pay for premium cigarette brands (and mid range brands to a lesser extent) and results in an erosion of premium brands’ value”.

The tobacco industry has launched a challenge in Australia’s high court, arguing that their intellectual property rights have been infringed.

The court ruled against them in August last year, but tobacco giants are continuing litigation in international trade courts.

Indeed, Australia’s Department of Health and Aged Care said that 35 parties had now joined the dispute before the World Trade Organisation.

“That is the largest ever World Trade Organisation dispute in the history of the organisation,” the department’s Nathan Smyth told the Australian parliament.

Erode the brand value and what happens? London Economics said limiting information for consumers tends to make price “the main focus of competition”. In other words, there could be a price war.

And if cigarettes become cheap as chips, the danger is that more people might take it up.

But crucially, this hasn’t happened in Australia – in fact cigarettes there are among the most expensive in the world.

This is because the Australian government has slapped on higher taxes.

Sin taxes for cigarettes are due to go up repeatedly over the next five years, pushing the price of a packet up to $20 (£12.20).

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a 10 per cent tax rise can cut consumption by about 4 per cent in high-income countries and by up to 8 per cent in low- and middle-income countries.

The other thing governments can do is use horrific pictures to put people off.

According to WHO, research carried out after the implementation of pictorial package warnings in Brazil, Canada, Singapore and Thailand consistently show “that pictorial warnings significantly increase people’s awareness of the harms of tobacco use”.

The Australian government has not yet gathered hard evidence on the effects of introducing plain packaging.

However, Australia’s Department of Health and Ageing told parliament they had “some very good anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is making an impact on people”.

The department said that some smokers were contacting them complaining that the flavour of the cigarettes had changed.

“A lot of people have commented that they’ve found the taste sensation far worse than they had thought. It has certainly changed some perceptions out there,” the department’s Nathan Smyth said.

“That would be the sensory perception that’s associated with some packaging elements that’s now actually gone and they’ve been left with the raw taste of what the products about without that sensory association.”

Sharon Appleyard from the department’s Tobacco Control Taskforce said: “We are also finding that people are very much noticing the new suite of graphic health warnings, and finding that those graphic health warnings are disturbing for them.

“Because of that, we have had people report to us that they are considering quitting or are going to quit. It has really now occurred to them that the appeal of tobacco smoking is not there, they can see the harms—it is there on the packet for them to see. It does seem to be having an effect.”

In February, Australia’s Cancer Council said that since the law changed, it had seen signs “that plain packaging may exceed our expectations on encouraging established smokers to quit as well”.

Calls to the Quitline had “increased significantly”, it said.

Meanwhile, the department’s secretary Jane Halton told parliament there was “great interest” from the international community.

“Certainly the message I get from people is that this is seen as the last battle, in way, with big tobacco, recognising that some countries have a lot further to go. That is why people are very keen to see us succeed,” she said.

The verdict

It is overwhelmingly agreed that plain packaging is an extra weapon in the fight against the harmful effects of smoking.

However, it totally erodes tobacco brands’ marketing power and as a result Australia – the first country to implement the rule – says it has prompted the largest dispute in the history of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The Australians call it the “last battle” in the war against Big Tobacco.

They only introduced the measure to bring in plain packets in December and they haven’t officially totted up the effects yet.

But Australia’s health department has reported “very good anecdotal evidence” that it’s having an impact.

More people are phoning the quit line, and the unattractive packaging has even prompting phone calls to the government complaining they’ve changed the taste of fags. The move has changed people’s sensory perceptions of cigarettes.

The “glamour is gone”, the Australian government says.

There might be no hard evidence as yet, but there’s certainly no evidence that it is doing anything other than encouraging people to quit. There’s also no evidence of the feared “price war”.

Mr Hunt is “doing nothing” – regardless of this and regardless of the fact that the UK government’s public consultation revealed that the majority of people agreed the move would help.

By Emma Thelwell