Remember when a pack of smokes came with glitzy logos, rich foil sleeves, and romanticized language about the pleasures within? The future of cigarette packs is now on display in Australia, and it’s not romantic: large, graphic images of gangrenous limbs and cancer victims, with brand names printed in a uniform font on a background legally mandated as “drab dark brown.”
Tobacco products complying with the world’s first plain-packaging laws started arriving in Australia’s stores around Oct. 1, when the country’s A$10 billion ($10.37 billion) tobacco industry was hit with strict constraints on how it can package and sell cigarettes. Similar regulations, backed by the World Health Organization, are being weighed in the U.K., New Zealand, Turkey, and the EU. “With so many countries lined up to ride on Australia’s coattails, what we hope to see is a domino effect for the good of public health,” Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director general, said in a statement.
New government standards set out the images and health warnings that must cover 75 percent of the front of cigarette packs. Among them: a gangrenous foot, a tongue cancer, a toilet stained with bloody urine, and a skeletal man named Bryan who is dying of lung cancer. Further warnings must appear on the sides and cover 90 percent of the back.
By requiring so much of the packaging to dramatically show that smoking is horrific, health officials are betting they can create a greater deterrent than the postage-stamp-size, health-related images that previously graced Australian packs. “The pictures are becoming bigger; you can’t ignore it,” says Ash Alhusban, fingering the butt end of a cigarette during a break from his job as co-manager of Opera Convenience, a small store near Sydney’s opera house. “When I saw them I said, ‘Believe me, I will do my best to stop smoking.’ ”
The legislation, passed last December, also bans “decorative ridges, embossing, bulges, or other irregularities of shape or texture,” and even mandates the appearance of foil liners. No trademarks may appear, and all product names must be in an identical Lucida Sans font on a background of greenish-brown Pantone 448C hue. “Young people are the ones most affected by the packaging and by the advertising, and no parent wants their kid to start smoking,” Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said on local TV.
Government inspectors will be closely scrutinizing packs over the next two months, on the lookout for even small deviations from the stylebook, says Simon Crittle, a spokesman for Plibersek. Health officials had already slammed the packaging of some cigarette makers who tried photos that weren’t grisly enough shortly before the imposition of the new rules. “The images that had appeared on some of the packs—graphic health warnings, photos of people with gangrene—weren’t as sharp as they could have been,” Crittle says. “The reds weren’t as red as they should be.”
Mandatory picture warnings were first introduced in Canada in 2001. They now have been rolled out in 47 countries, including Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey, and Ukraine among the world’s top 10 cigarette markets, according to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance. Australia’s rollout is being watched because the barring of almost all branding goes further than rules in other nations. Similar regulations in the U.S. have been stalled by a federal appeals court ruling in August.
The packaging laws are among several measures, including a 25 percent tax increase, intended to cut the prevalence of smokers from the current 15 percent of Australians to 10 percent by 2018. About 15,000 Australians die from tobacco-related diseases annually, with social and economic costs of about A$32 billion a year, the government reports.
The High Court of Australia in August dismissed a claim by British American Tobacco, Philip Morris, Imperial Tobacco, and Japan Tobacco International that the law illegally seizes their intellectual property by banning the display of trademarks. Appeals have also been lodged by Honduras, Ukraine, and the Dominican Republic at the World Trade Organization, claiming the law restricts the tobacco trade.
Cigarette makers are right to fear the regulations, says David Hammond, an expert in tobacco rules at the University of Waterloo in Canada: “Once tobacco control measures are established in one country, they spread.”