JULY 20 — As Malaysia and the Philippines consider plain packaging for cigarettes, following its introduction in Singapore at the start of the month, Australia releases data that confirms the controversial policy has failed to transform the country’s smoking rates for the better.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) released the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) this week. This survey has become a vital indicator of the performance of government health policies, including tobacco control. Previous surveys were carried out in 2010 before plain packaging for tobacco products was introduced, in 2013, the year following its introduction (along with other measures, including tax increases), and again in 2016.
The data shows that, prior to 2012, the per centage of daily smokers in Australia was in long-term, steady decline (a rate of 0.46 per cent annually for 20+ years). After plain packaging was introduced, this annual rate of decline slowed by almost a half to just 0.26 per cent between 2013 and 2019.
Moreover, the proportion of smokers planning to quit has not changed since plain packaging was introduced. Three in 10 smokers have no interest in quitting, the same percentage (30 per cent) as in 2010. Rather than this costly eight-year experiment, the Australian government would have been better off doing nothing at all.
More people are now using e-cigarettes (which, curiously, Australian and Malay authorities see as a bad thing). Between 2016 and 2019, the proportion of people who had ever used e-cigs or vapes rose from 8.8 per cent to 11.3 per cent (e-cigarette data was not collected prior to 2016).
Overall, there is no evidence in this report that plain packaging is making any positive change to the number of people who smoke in Australia, the only market for which longer-term data exists on the policy.
In fact, the country is in a worse position now than it was prior to when plain packaging and other punitive measures were introduced. The proportion of smokers using illicit, unbranded loose tobacco has increased by 37 per cent (10.5 per cent in 2010 to 14.4 per cent in 2019). Meanwhile, overall consumption of illegal tobacco products (including unbranded loose tobacco, along with contraband and counterfeit items) has risen by a whopping 80 per cent (from 11.5 per cent in 2012 to 20.7 per cent in 2019) and is now at a record level, according to a recent KPMG study.
Since Australia introduced plain packaging, its failure to deter smokers has been under-reported; in fact, it has been promoted as a legitimate measure to discourage smoking. The World Trade Organisation appellate body has indeed ruled that plain packaging in Australia is a legal measure, but that doesn’t mean that it is effective, or right, or that any other government would be wise to copy it. The data clearly suggests otherwise.
What the AIHW report has shown (yet again) is that plain packaging remains a flawed idea that is proving unsuccessful. Yet, it is being unwisely adopted by countries following in Australia’s footsteps. In the case of Malaysia, where at least six out of every 10 cigarettes smoked are illegal (making it the #1 market for illegal tobacco worldwide), it is especially ill-advised; do we really want to make the situation worse?
This report should be the final nail in the coffin for plain packaging and an opportunity for governments to consider credible alternatives, including the legalisation and promotion of e-cigarettes containing nicotine. There is increasing and convincing evidence that vaping has the potential to reduce health risks associated with smoking. Public Health England states that it is at least 95 per cent less harmful than cigarette smoke and can help at least 20,000 smokers to quit every year.
In spite of this, the Australian government recently announced a ban on the importation of e-cigarette fluid containing nicotine. If the ban is introduced in January 2021, the estimated 450,000 vapers in Australia will either be turned into criminals (forced to find their products on the black-market), or they will likely revert to smoking; yet another example of the government’s shortsighted, abstinence-only, “quit or die” approach.
Governments must make it easier for smokers to quit, not harder. And yet, in Malaysia, as in Australia, it is still a criminal offence to buy, possess, or use e-cigarettes containing nicotine. Perpetrators face hefty fines and even prison time. Instead of permitting and encouraging vaping, Malaysia and the Philippines are, in effect, abandoning smokers to die or become criminals, when they should be supporting their efforts to quit.
Unlike cigarettes, vapes don’t release tar and carcinogens through combustible tobacco. They turn nicotine solution into vapour, offering smokers a satisfying alternative, while mimicking the action of smoking and without exposure to dangerous toxins.
Policymakers in South-east Asia should think twice and draw their own conclusions on the Australian experiment, including its negative consequences, rather than simply jumping on this questionable World Health Organisation bandwagon.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.