Does plain packaging encourage crime?

International stakeholders are focusing keenly on Australia’s experience with plain packaging for tobacco products… including the IRA, one international body claims.

Jane McCredie writes in MJA InSight this week that it’s not only governments seeking to reduce the harms of smoking examining plain packaging: the international Property Rights Alliance is claiming that now Ireland has passed plain packaging legislation, the biggest beneficiary will be IRA smugglers.

The Alliance quotes a customs official who says, “Plain packaging is not the solution, it’s becoming the problem. It’s a gift beyond imagination. Nothing moves across the border without the IRA taking a cut. This is putting tens of millions of pounds into the Real IRA’s coffers. The politicians have created a nightmare scenario.”

An Inside FMCG story from 2015 cites the Illicit Tobacco in Australia Full Year 2014 Report, prepared by KPMG LLP in the UK, which showed illegal tobacco represented 14.5% of total tobacco consumption, with nearly 2.6 million kilograms of illicit tobacco consumed during 2014.

McCredie also highlights the Alliance’s “new, and widely lampooned” ad about “the failed Australian experiment” as well as international attempts by retailing groups such as the Canadian Convenience Stores Association to oppose plain packaging.

She isn’t convinced that plain packaging leads to smuggling.

“So the plain packs made customers go into convenience stores, not to buy cigarettes, but to ask staff where they could find a friendly local ciggie smuggler… seriously?” McCredie writes.

“The allegation that plain packaging has somehow led to an increase in cigarette consumption crops up a lot.

“The federal government’s post-implementation review, released earlier this year, found continuing declines in smoking prevalence, with the rate of decline increasing significantly after the introduction of the generic packs.

“Tobacco plain packaging was ‘achieving its aim of improving public health in Australia and is expected to have substantial public health outcomes into the future’, the review concluded.”

But what of those concerns that generic packaging plays into the hands of criminals, encouraging smokers to seek out illegal cigarettes and making it easier to produce fake packs, asks McCredie?

“With current technology, it’s hard to see why it would be any easier to produce a counterfeit generic pack than a branded one, but leaving that aside, the industry will be happy to learn that this concern too can be put to rest.

A large national survey of Australian smokers, conducted six months before the introduction of plain packaging and again 15 months after, found no increase in the use of illicit cigarettes.”

A couple of weeks ago World No Tobacco Day (May 31) made plain packaging its theme. The WHO is encouraging governments around the world to adopt the measure.

Quit Victoria Director Dr Sarah White said a recent Federal Government review of plain packaging found the laws were achieving their aims, which include reducing the appeal of smoking and strengthening the effectiveness of graphic health warnings.

“The review also found that plain packaging is contributing to a decline in smoking rates across Australia and benefits are likely to grow over time, as part of a comprehensive approach to reducing death and disease caused by smoking,” Dr White said.

“Already other countries are following Australia’s lead—France and the United Kingdom implemented plain packaging on May 20, and Ireland is soon to follow.

“A recent judgement of the UK High Court rejecting big tobacco’s attempt to derail the new legislation made for fascinating reading, as the judge exposed some of the industry’s tactics around plain packaging.

“The fact is, smoking will kill two out of three long-term users, and plain packaging is one of the tools we can use to turn people away from this deadly habit.”

McCredie agrees. “Take a deep breath, people,” she writes. “Drab cigarette packets are not going to lead to the banning of lollies, any more than they will to the incitement of terrorists.

“But they might just help a few people to quit the toxic habit or, even better, never to start it in the first place.”

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