16 August 2012

South Africa: What Australia's Win Against Big Tobacco Means for Global Health

The ruling this week by Australia's high court to uphold its government's right to introduce "plain packaging" for tobacco products is a landmark event for global health. With the world's eyes watching this decision, the court struck down a challenge from the biggest cigarette manufacturers around the globe.By John R. Seffrin.

This is a significant victory for public health in Australia, and the world, on several levels. Marketing and branding by tobacco industries helps reinforce the image of the most profitable, and deadly, companies in the world. But starting in December, cigarette packaging in Australia will not have tobacco company logos and branding. According to the new law, they must be sold in plain, drab, olive-colored boxes with brand names in a standard typeface. Instead of tobacco logos, the packaging will feature stark images of victims suffering from tobacco-related diseases.

We know, also, that youth respond to graphic tobacco images and that these new packages will likely prevent this group from starting smoking. Plain packaging also prevents cigarette companies from creating packages that mislead consumers with claims that "light" or "low tar" cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes. This law also makes it illegal for manufacturers to use "slim" packages to amplify the perception that smoking helps them with weight loss.

As the chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, I am grateful for this ruling on plain packaging, as it will undoubtedly reduce the cancer burden in Australia. Globally, tobacco kills up to half of its users. It takes the lives of nearly six million people per year.

However, the significance of this Australia ruling extends to countries around the world and the global health community. The reason tobacco companies have fought vociferously against plain packaging is because they know this will have a major impact in not only decreasing the number of new consumers who may become addicted, but also because other countries may follow Australia's lead. The decision extends beyond even the U.S. FDA proposal to place graphic warning labels on U.S. cigarette packages, which itself is being challenged in court by the tobacco industry.

Australia has long been a leader in public health advocacy when it comes to saving lives from tobacco usage. I personally congratulate the hard work of Australian Attorney General Nicola Roxon and her colleagues for their vision and for the years of hard work it has taken to first craft and now implement this game-changing law. In addition, we congratulate Australia's Health Minister Tanya Plibersek and its Department of Health and Ageing, a recipient earlier this year of the American Cancer Society's prestigious Luther Terry Award for Outstanding Leadership in Global Tobacco Control.

This decision at the highest level of Australia's court system will likely incentivize and motivate other countries to follow suit with similar legislation against an extremely well-funded and powerful tobacco industry. We have seen tobacco industry leaders issue ominous warnings about their continued efforts to challenge packaging in other countries, but we stand strong and united as a global community, committed to working together to prevent needless death and disease from the global scourge that is tobacco.

John R. Seffrin, PhD is the Chief Executive Officer of The American Cancer Society

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