Smoking rates in Australia could drop from 15 to 10 per cent within six years due to plain packaging, federal health minister Tanya Plibersek has said.
Speaking ahead of the introduction of new laws banning the sale of cigarettes other than in plain packaging, Ms Plibersek said it would take some time to have an impact.
The taste of plain package cigarettes
We ask people on the street if they think the new plain packaging impacts on the taste of cigarettes.
"But when you look at what we've achieved in Australia - after the second world war 50 per cent of Australians smoked, now 15 per cent of Australians smoke," she said.
"We're keen to get that number down to ten per cent by 2018. So we’re going to keep pushing down the rates of smokers.
"If we can prevent young people from taking it up, that’s a lifetime gift to them. And if we can help people who’ve been addicted for sometime ... then I think we’ll see a big difference in our smoking rates over coming years."
Ms Plibersek's comments follow reports from smokers that cigarettes in plain packs taste worse, which health experts say could be an early indication the new laws will be effective in reducing smoking rates.
They say it is well-established that branded packaging is a powerful marketing tool for recruiting new smokers.
The laws which take effect on Saturday require cigarettes to be sold in drab brown packaging including health warnings that cover 75 per cent of the pack.
A health department spokeswoman said about 50 trade inspectors would enforce the new laws including visits to retailers, manufacturers and suppliers where there were reasonable grounds to suspect breaches.
"Enforcement under the legislation will involve a range of actions in responses to breaches including education, warnings and infringement notices. In the most serious cases, court action may be taken," she said.
The spokeswoman said the health department had received more than 30 complaints from retailers about Philip Morris refusing to accept returns of branded cigarette packs.
Ms Plibersek said the government "would not allow tobacco companies to use retailers as pawns in their fight against plain packaging" and had written to the company demanding it accept returns.
She said the government would initially take an educative approach to small-scale breaches by retailers.
"When you're talking about a few packets here, perhaps sold in error, we'll take an educative approach. If you're talking about a large corporation that deliberately imported or made non-compliant cigarettes, then we'd be throwing the book at them," she said.