More smokers are supportive of cigarette plain-packaging laws than against them, marking an important cultural shift, new research reveals.
Two years after the laws were introduced, an analysis of Australian data from a four-country International Tobacco Control survey found 49 per cent of smokers approved of plain-packaging measures compared with 34.7 per cent who opposed them.
Plain packaging of cigarettes became compulsory in Australia in December 2012. When surveyed before the law was implemented, just 28.2 per cent of smokers supported the measures.
Cancer Council Victoria's Dr Ron Borland, one of the research paper's authors, said the results were significant because it meant a world-first, untested law had become widely accepted.
"It's important because if people become too upset by a law, then you can get pushback. Smokers, I think were somewhat nervous of the notion of plain packaging and thought it would have adverse effects on them," he said.
For Dr Boland, the combination of the plain packaging, with its murky olive-brown colouring and the diminished, once-iconic corporate logos with the confronting imagery of the health warnings provided the optimum opportunity for impact.
The health warnings could give a smoker a greater incentive and even make it easier for them to quit, Dr Borland said, and discourage a person from taking up smoking again once they have quit.
"If you go back to smoking, you've got to pick up a packet of cigarettes. Being reminded of the reasons you've quit, more saliently, will be a benefit," he said.
But British American Tobacco Australia spokesman Scott McIntyre said plain packaging was a "failing experiment" which did not meet its objectives.
"This survey even admits that it cannot directly demonstrate an increase in quitting activity," he said.
"We have data which shows that in the first full year of plain packaging, the volume of cigarettes in Australia increased for the first time in over a decade," he said.
Earlier this year, federal Treasury data showed a 3.4 per cent decrease in cigarette sales in 2013 compared with 2012.
But a data analysis commissioned by British American Tobacco found a 0.3 rise in sales, a buck in a four-year decline in cigarette sales before prior to the introduction of the law.
Dr Borland said other research commissioned by tobacco companies found the plain packaging had no effect on cigarette sales.
"But just taking the colours off the pack isn't going to transform the situation – nobody ever believed that," he said.
The real results of the effects plain packaging has on reducing the smoking rates was many years away, he said.
"Most of the benefits of plain packaging were going to be in reducing uptake in kids who are socially attracted to smoking. That's very difficult to demonstrate," he said.
The research comes after France announced it would join Britain and Ireland in developing plain-packaging laws to combat one of the highest smoking rates in Europe.
According to the Cancer Council, Victoria has a smoking rate of 13.3 per cent, the lowest rate since data was collected in 1998, when it was 21.2 per cent.