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Calls to Quitline soar after plain packaging laws

Cigarette plain packaging showing the front and back of pack.

Cigarette plain packaging showing the front and back of pack.

Australia's world-leading introduction of plain cigarette packaging appears to have triggered a significant spike in callers to Quitline.

Researchers from the University of Sydney and Cancer Institute NSW studied calls to Quitline in NSW over nine years to see how plain packaging had changed the volume of calls when taking into account other factors that may influence calls, such as anti-tobacco advertising campaigns, the changing price of tobacco, the number of smokers in the community and seasonal peaks observed in the New Year period.

Statistical modelling to screen out the impact of these factors found plain packaging triggered a 78 per cent jump in weekly calls to Quitline NSW from 363 in the week before plain packaging began on October 1, 2012, to 651 four weeks later. The effect lasted for about 10 months, during which calls gradually decreased to roughly the same levels before the new packs hit the market.

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They said the surge mirrored a similar one after the introduction of graphic health warnings and the Quitline number on packs in 2006 when calls jumped 84 per cent from 910 to a peak of 1673 within 12 weeks.

''We found a significant increase in the number of calls to Quitline coinciding with the introduction of mandatory plain packaging of tobacco after other known confounders had been taken into account. Australia has taken a lead on mandating plain packaging, now supported by evidence of an immediate impact of this legislation. This should encourage other countries that are preparing similar legislation,'' the authors reported in the Medical Journal of Australia.

The researchers said although the volume of calls to Quitline was an ''indirect'' measure of people's quitting intentions and behaviour, it was more objective than community surveys where people can answer questions in a socially desirable and biased way.

They said it was also difficult to know whether increased calls were caused by the larger graphic health warnings that came into effect with plain packaging, rather than plain packaging itself.

When the federal government's law came into full force on December 1, 2012, 75 per cent of the front of packs had to be covered in graphic health warnings, compared with 25 per cent previously. Tobacco companies were also banned from displaying brand logos or colours on identical olive green packs.

While public health organisations celebrated the research on Monday, Chris Argent, a spokesman for tobacco company Philip Morris, said there was no evidence people had actually stopped smoking.

''In November 2013, a study by London Economics found that since the introduction of plain packaging in Australia there has been no change in smoking prevalence … What matters is whether fewer people are smoking as a result of these policies - and the data is clear that overall tobacco consumption and smoking prevalence has not gone down,'' he said.

The federal Department of Health will complete a study of smokers and recent quitters in December 2014 to assess the short and medium-term effects of the packaging change.

While other countries, including Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland have flagged a desire to follow Australia's tough new laws, there are several legal challenges under way, including one instigated by Philip Morris Asia. The company says the Australian government has breached the Hong Kong-Australia Bilateral Investment Treaty and wants either the legislation suspended or compensation for the loss of its investments from plain packaging ''which may amount to billions of dollars''.

93 comments

  • If there is no evidence of smoking having decreased, then Phillip Morris should rejoice, and pocket the extra money it used to spend to make its packaging attractive.

    However, increasing numbers of calls to QUIT indicate that the packaging changes have stimulated the desire to quit, and it is unscientific to rely on the London Economics study - which may have been designed if funded by the tobacco industry to skew the results. Let's get more data and more studies.

    Commenter
    Ross
    Location
    MALLABULA
    Date and time
    January 14, 2014, 8:16AM
    • yeah lets have more studies.. science will never convince the stupid just like with climate change so it would make no difference. Just this one policy by itself stands to show the difference between the liberal and labor parties. This is just the liberals led by Pete Credlin paying back mates for the election. They knew full well how to get around the plain packaging laws

      Commenter
      harry
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 9:50AM
    • There is only one way to reduce smoking. Tax it out of existence. Irrefutable medical evidence exists that smoking is a major contributor to cancer and other health related problems. The cost to the government budget via Medicare is enormous and needs to be at least partially recovered from those smokers in the community contributing directly to the problem. The commission of audit should recommend that the tobacco tax be doubled. They could justify the increase by citing the community need to protect those mentally deficient drongos who smoke from their own folly.

      Commenter
      JohnC
      Location
      Gosford NSW
      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 10:20AM
    • I've been nearly nine months since quitting , and it had nothing to do with the plain packaging ....... It was the cough, my kids , my wife , my life , my health that made me do it ;)

      Commenter
      Tristan
      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 10:25AM
    • @JohnC
      So John, please site this 'irrefutable evidence'. I'd be interested in reading it since all the clinical papers I read on the subject were based on small communities where the subjects were also alcoholics and suffered from type II diabetes.
      On the subject of diabetes there are more deaths and health related issues attributed to eating related heart disorders than there are smokers.....Shall you also suggest taxing sugar and fatty foods out of existence? I think you will find that this is more a drain on the medicare system.
      Smokers according to people like you die younger. Isn't this also less of a drain on the health system since they don't require ongoing medical attention and are not sitting in a nursing home dribbling and not knowing who they are?
      For the record, I am a non-smoker yet still have the common sense to allow people to make their own choices. Raising taxes will not make people quit. In some socio-economic households all it will do is deprive children of a meal or two so the parents can afford the higher price of cigarettes.
      Please, before standing on your soap box and playing the high and mighty get at least some of your facts straight and focus on the big picture.

      Commenter
      Jack
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 11:27AM
    • It cost the tobacco companies more money to make their cigarette packets less "attractive"!

      Commenter
      dulcie
      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 11:58AM
    • @Jack - 11.27am. You stated: For the record, I am a non-smoker yet still have the common sense to allow people to make their own choices.
      In a fair, and balanced world, these choices would need to be 'informed choices' - in full knowledge of the risks and benefits associated with that choice. Would that be right?
      I would think that anyone, who now purchases a packet with the current labelling, can now make a more informed choice than they would have been able to years ago.
      (Yes, I am deliberately avoiding the influence of 'addiction' impeding this 'informed choice' as that is what you have done).

      Commenter
      Jump
      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 12:02PM
    • JohnC, the same could be said for the mentally deficient drongo's who drink alcohol. These graphic images were on the packages long before plain packaging laws came into effect. People I know are quitting solely because of the cost. Which is what they will do to fuel soon. You people think you can keep driving around poisoning people with toxic exhaust fumes and suffer no consequences? Wait until the government doubles fuel tax everytime they need some more revenue. Will happen to alcohol too. Good comment Jack. Unfortunately there are many people ready to jump on their soapboxes, until it's something that affects them directly, then watch them sing another tune.

      Commenter
      Gazzatone
      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 12:44PM
    • Outlaw the growing of tobacco ,and its sale and supplyBillionaires ion cocaine and heroin trafficking have never been allowed to sell their products despite the profits government could make from licencing those ,and they ,well heroin per se , is no where near as dangerous as tobacco, heroin is just a muscle relaxant and pain killer, yet they claim money talks and stops them just outlawing tobacco crops,and they still licence and tax its sale?Hello? Someones being twisted.Course higher prices means better profits on paper to tobacco sellers,their production can diminish and profits still rise.And no doubt they have a sweetheart deal with Government going on to make the most out of the suckers for both.Image is everything , isnt it--public perceptions their beliefs in governments intentions, on their behalf

      Commenter
      Kane
      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 12:51PM
    • @Jack
      My sincere apologies Jack. I should have known better. It would seem according to your post that smoking not only enhances good health and a long rewarding life but the opinion of the entire medical profession is wrong and hopelessly and unfairly biased against the innocent tobacco companies. I now intend to become an advocate for free distribution of cigarettes starting at pre-school and the establishment of smoking rooms at all schools and kindergartens. Ill-informed people like me must butt out of this argument.

      Commenter
      JohnC
      Location
      Gosford NSW
      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 1:20PM

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