Smokers looking to buy a pack of Marlboro Lights in Sydney or Winfield Blues in Perth will soon have a hard time telling the difference at the cash register.
That’s the plan behind Australia’s history-making Plain Packaging Bill, which seeks to drastically curb smoking rates by stripping cigarette packs of all identifiable branding and replacing them with generic colouring and a standard font. The controversial legislation, which passed through Parliament’s lower house last week, is now en route to the Senate, much to the ire of Big Tobacco, which has already threatened to sue the Federal Government for breach of intellectual property rights.
The plain packaging proposal is gaining traction because, to many, it makes sense. Cigarette smokers are consumers at heart, and like all consumers they have their brand allegiances. Under the proposed legislation, every pack, regardless of brand or cost, will be an unappealing bile green – focus group-tested as the most offensive colour to young people – and plastered with health warnings. Both medical professionals and politicians maintain that, in eliminating these last remaining aspects by which smokers distinguish themselves, cigarettes lose much of their potency.
They’re right, of course, and it’s precisely this knowledge that has tobacco companies scrambling for their lawyers. “The brand you choose is absolutely a statement of how you see and project yourself,” says a confidential senior executive in the Australian advertising industry. “You can see by the amount of noise they’re making how much it’s going to hurt them.”
Both Philip Morris and British American Tobacco have attempted to have the bill quashed. They’ve tried to utilise Freedom Of Information Laws, Australia’s bipartisan relations with Hong Kong and anything else that will stick. So far they have had little success.
With giant marketing budgets already swelling to bursting point thanks to tough restrictions on advertising, tobacco companies in Australia have surplus funds to burn. Having failed by taking the legal path, they hit the media instead, taking out full-page advertisements for weeks on end in the country’s major broadsheets under the guise of the Australian Retailers Alliance.
The ads claimed that this brand assassination would affect small business owners, even purporting, without evidence, that it would increase the uptake of smoking by children. These massive media spends by Big Tobacco spoke for themselves. Well aware of how devastatingly effective the law could be in reducing rates of smoking, particularly among the young, they continue their battle through every avenue available. “It will set a dangerous precedent,” says the executive. “These are multinational companies and will damage their business for good.”