Although smoking in the U.S. is already on the decline, with some experts even believing that a near-complete end may be on the horizon, the fact is that 18 percent of American adults still smoke cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A new study out of Australia, however, may be able to help lower these numbers even more though, as it found that people who bought cigarettes in a boring olive-colored package bearing a quit-smoking hotline were more likely to call for help.
Since October 2012, Australian cigarette packs have been plain, only containing health warnings and the hotline number, while relegating the tobacco companies’ names to only a small font — essentially making every pack look the same. In July of last year, two academic lawyers presented arguments on behalf of Ukraine, Cuba, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic alleging that Australia’s tobacco packaging law was too radical, and that it was restricting trade. One of the lawyers argued that Australia was “encumbering” intellectual property trademarks without justification. Rebutting that, Georgetown Professor Benn McGrady, who also advised the World Health Organization on the plain packaging said that the standards for justification were low, and that they only required “a rational relationship” between policy and its objective. Because of this, the World Trade Organization didn’t need proof that plain packaging would improve health because that proof would emerge over time, according to Reuters.
It seems like Australia is well on its way, however, to accomplishing its goal of reducing smoking by 10 percent by 2018. Within only the first month of implementing the law, there was a 78-percent spike in calls to territorial quit-smoking hotlines. “The results suggest the legislation does have a positive early impact (on smokers) and so other countries should feel more confident in introducing similar legislation,” June Young, a cancer epidemiologist at the Sydney School of Public Health, told Reuters.
For the study, the researchers compared the effectiveness of the plain packaging to packaging that had graphic images of smoking’s effects — packages that were implemented in Australia in 2006, and which have also been used in the U.S. They looked at the amount of calls hotlines in two regions received after plain packs were introduced, and found that they rose from 363 per week to 651 after only four weeks. Although the introduction of graphic images also led to an increase when it was launched, the duration of the increase wasn’t as long, and only lasted about 20 weeks, whereas an increase in call volume lasted an estimated 43 weeks with the plain packs.
Of course, anything to help smokers quit is a great thing. Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death in the U.S., according to the CDC. It kills an estimated 443,000 people each year, and causes illness in another 8.6 million people. It’s one of the leading causes of lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among many, many other illnesses. Other countries may soon follow in Australia’s steps, health public health experts say. As Joanna Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Tobacco Control at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md. told Reuters: “Anything that we can do to better communicate that the product is deadly is a good thing.”
Source: Young J, Stacey I, Dobbins T, et al. Association between tobacco plain packaging and Quitline calls: a population-based, interrupted time-series analysis. The Medical Journal of Australia. 2014.