Two of the big guns of Julia Gillard’s Government confirmed this morning that they will not contest the next election.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, one of the most prominent faces of the Labor Government under both prime ministers, and Higher Education Minister Chris Evans will resign from Cabinet.
It’s big news. Roxon, particularly, is one of the most prominent public faces of this Government, having pushed through one of Labor’s signature accomplishments, the plain packaging of tobacco products. And Evans has been the leader of the party in the Senate for eight years.
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Finally, 20 years after Cancer Council Australia first recommended plain packaging on the basis of evidence that branded packaging influences smoking take-up, its time has come. From tomorrow, all tobacco retailers in Australia will be required by law to sell only tobacco products in plain packaging.
What a great day for public health.
Some readers will disagree. Not the majority – surveys show most Australians support plain packaging. But having written on this topic before, I expect criticism from sceptics, anti-“nanny state” crusaders and tobacco industry trolls masquerading as both. So let’s pre-empt the arguments against plain packaging with some facts.
1) Plain packaging won’t work.
Why then have tobacco companies thrown tens of millions of dollars at stopping plain packaging, in the small Australian market alone?
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We’re nearly at the day where we (officially) won’t be able to tell the difference between packets of Winnie Blues, Marlboros and Long Beaches. From Saturday, durrie packets have to be coloured a particularly foul brown.
“Look you stupid bastard, you’ve got no arms”
But what’s stunning is how little fight the tobacco industry has put up against the packaging laws.
The industry’s attempts to stop plain packaging gained no traction right from the very beginning, when a group posing as a representative for convenience stores popped up, stressing the economic impact of plain packaging on your local servos and 7-Elevens.
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Smoking is bad. Big tobacco is evil. These truisms are as entwined as pies and sauce. Therefore, the plain packaging of cigarette packets must be a progressive step, given tobacco companies have spent tens of millions of dollars fighting the idea. Yesterday, the High Court made such legislation binding.
Even smokers might gloat at the idea of tobacco companies being flogged in a courtroom. And Australia, once again, gets a gold medal for showing the world how it should be done, which is a step up at least from some of ourl male swimmers.
It was a “victory for all families who had lost someone to a tobacco-related disease” said a Gillard Government press release. It was “a relief for every parent”. “For anyone who has ever lost someone, this is for you.” Cigarettes, it seemed, have been reinvented.
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Many smokers and, at a guess, pretty much every cufflink-wearing executive from the big tobacco companies have a habit of posturing as macho libertarians. They argue that cigarettes are a legal product, smoking is a matter of choice, and that when it comes to telling us how we can live our lives, the nanny state can go stick it in its pipe and smoke it.
This is all fine, up to a point. And that point is when smokers get sick and automatically assume that it is the job of the health system – that is, the taxpayers – to step in and cover the cost of their collapsed lungs, clogged arteries and triple bypasses.
It is a logically inconsistent position and, frankly, quite a pathetic one. If smokers and the tobacco industry are going to be hairy-chested about the manner in which they live their life, they should also be held to account for the manner of their death. I write that not as some clean-living puritan, but one of those poor sad dills who has become addicted to this stupid drug, but who is now happily (and hopefully) in the final stages of a victorious battle against nicotine, setting aside last week’s beer-fuelled regression at the office Christmas party.
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Out of nowhere, my friend Robyn contracted pneumonia this week and ended up in hospital, gasping for breath and coughing her lungs up. It was a scary sight, seeing this dynamic, strong chick totally debilitated and struggling for oxygen.
“Anyone who’s thinking about taking up smoking should get a little dose of pneumonia,” she said with a wheeze. “I can’t believe anyone would voluntarily do this to their bodies by sucking on cigarettes.”
I toyed with fags at about 16. It was glamour that got me in: the silky silver packaging and swirling royal blue font of the Stirling Special Mild brand. Most of my friends were into it too. My, how we thought we looked urbane and adult – maybe even old enough to buy drinks at the bar of the local Curramulka Hotel.
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What is the cigarette plain packaging legislation?
From July 2012 the Australian Government plans to prohibit all brand logos, fonts, colours and promotional wording on cigarette packaging. Cigarettes will come in olive green boxes displaying prominent safety warnings and the name of the brand and variant printed in standard size, font and position.
Why is Labor taking on Big Tobacco?
They are the only target left that is less popular than Julia Gillard.
Does plain packaging infringe on freedom of choice?
Studies have shown most smokers cannot distinguish between brands in blind trials and the perceived differences are often an artefact of subtle cues in the colour, logos and design on the packaging. Nevertheless, tobacco companies spend millions of dollars perfecting the positive associations evoked by cigarette packaging and consumers have a right to have their free choices subconsciously influenced by them.
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In the gruesome final scene of Martin Scorcese’s remake of Cape Fear, the sadistic murderer Max Cady has been bashed with a plank, burned with lighter fluid, thrown off the side of a houseboat and is finally drowning in a river. As he sinks into the water he starts speaking in tongues, struggling to keep his mouth above the waterline as he shouts random free-form gibberish before finally drowning.
I was reminded of this scene while listening to a woman from a cigarette company on the radio this week as she put forward the tobacco industry’s arguments, if you can call them that, against plain packaging.
Despite having a long-standing fondness for the gaspers, and a firm belief that adults should be free to do whatever they like, I don’t ever think I have heard such nonsense in my life. This industry, which in essence is in the death business, is itself in its death throes. As it sinks further into the abyss it is thrashing about spouting nonsense in defence of its right to sell demonstrably deadly products.
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The tobacco industry’s campaign against plain packaging is at last a cause worthy enough for me to believe in.
As a smoker myself it is very important to me that if I am going to be killed slowly it should at least be by someone I know and trust. Indeed, it does not reflect well on the euthanasia lobby that it is strangely silent on this particular aspect of dying with dignity.
Fundamentally this is a debate about choosing the manner of your own death. Some people choose to hurl themselves off the Gap, Ben Elton chooses to do it on live television and smokers choose to do it by gradually annihilating their lungs.
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Plain packaging of tobacco products has great potential to reduce the appeal of smoking, particularly among young people, and should be supported if Australians want to see death and disease from tobacco use continue to decline.
Simple, really. But unfortunately the facts have been difficult to read amid the smoke and mirrors, sound and fury. So consider this:
Fact: Glossy, stylised cigarette packets are a valuable marketing tool for attracting new smokers. This has been shown in Cancer Council research and dozens of other Australian and international studies, not to mention documents obtained from tobacco companies.
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Kids say olive brown is the colour of sick. And that’s what smoking will make you - in fact it will actually kill you.
The fight to lower the smoking rate and reduce the impact of death and disease on the Australian community has been one of the great public health battles of the past 30 years.
It is a fight the community is winning, but has not yet won. Big Tobacco has deep pockets and the fight has been played out in court rooms and column inches across the country.
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