Since the introduction of plain packaging tobacco sales are at their lowest in history.

Since the introduction of plain packaging tobacco sales are at their lowest in history. Photo: Angela Wylie

The recent debate over the effectiveness of plain packaging playing out in Australian media is alarming – not only because of the politicisation of a public health issue, or the tit-for-tat over the credentials of those commenting on its efficacy – but because when all initial evidence to date is laid out: there quite simply is no debate.

When plain packaging was introduced in 2012, its purpose was two-fold. The first was to reduce its attractiveness to consumers – most importantly young people. This is important to note, because very few people take up smoking beyond their early to mid-20s. The next objective is to reduce the appeal of tobacco to smokers and increase the visibility of graphic health warnings.

The objectives laid out were appropriate for this policy as a public health measure, so talk of it being ineffective and citing non-transparent industry sales figures are dubious at best. Moreover, plain packaging is a long-term public health measure designed to work as part of a comprehensive tobacco control strategy. Its true efficacy should be observed over time, but since this all too early debate has surfaced, let’s look at the preliminary evidence.

In 2009, a report by the National Preventative Health Taskforce showed that cigarette packaging design is a powerful way that the industry misleads consumers about the harmful effects of tobacco. Packaging can increase its appeal to young people and minimise the perception of harm caused by their products. A subsequent review of evidence by the Cancer Council Victoria demonstrated unequivocally that plain packaging would be an effective policy, which was followed by extensive research by the Australian government on which "plain packages" would be most effective. This formative research determined that smokers did not like the look of plain packaging. Further to this, it made smokers feel less comfortable about their habit and made them think more about doing something to stop.

So, the argument that this policy is "experimental" is simply false, with comprehensive, peer-reviewed research giving the policy a strong evidence-base.

Since the introduction of plain packaging in 2012, there has been solid, peer-reviewed and transparent evidence of its effectiveness. A study our team at the Cancer Institute NSW undertook with the University of Sydney, reported smokers were taking direct action to quit, with a significant increase in people calling the Quitline after the introduction of plain packaging to shop shelves. This research also adjusted for the fact that tobacco companies increased the price of premium brands at the same time – which went largely unreported. Other research has concluded that plain packaged cigarettes increase smokers' urgency to quit. A further study observed a decline in smoking rates and how smokers now "hide" their packs rather than taking pride in the brand association.

These specific pieces of research are framed by the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s figures, showing tobacco sales are at their lowest in history at $3.405 billion. It was reported this week that the Commonwealth Treasury’s tobacco clearances fell by 3.4 per cent in 2013 relative to 2012.

The other side of the debate from the tobacco industry is that, according to their figures (yet to be publicly released in full), tobacco sales volumes have increased by 59 million "sticks". We are yet to see their data adjusted for population growth – the 0.3 per cent they claim in absolute terms is still a marked reduction per capita.

We are seeing smoking rates drop – and it is not by accident. Smoking is highly addictive, and through this debate we should not lose sight of how difficult it is for someone to give up smoking. But more people are quitting as a result of plain packaging.

There are a variety of views on what is next for tobacco control – many of them say if it is this bad, ban it. There is no evidence to suggest prohibition is the appropriate "next step" for tobacco control. Instead, governments and the community need to work together to ensure we are doing everything we can to support people to quit and to stop young people taking up the habit.

Professor David Currow is Chief Cancer Officer and CEO of the Cancer Institute NSW.