The Dean of Health Sciences at La Trobe University has weighed into the anti-tobacco debate, calling on the Australian government not to waver from its stance to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes as a key step to protect young people from the hazards of smoking.
Professor Hal Swerissen urges that in reaching its decision the government should ignore self-serving arguments by tobacco companies about such things as intellectual property rights, the right to free speech and the impact on the local corner shop.
Tobacco companies are ‘smart and ruthless’ in marketing to young people, he says.
‘Do we really want to protect the right of tobacco companies to market a clearly dangerous product to 16 year olds?’ he asks in an on-line opinion piece published on the University’s web site.
‘For cigarette companies their key business strategy is getting young people to smoke. This usually takes two or three years.’
He says the vast majority of new smokers are young people aged 15 to 24. ‘Almost no-one starts smoking after 25. There are 2.5 million 15 to 24 year olds. About 360,000 of them smoke cigarettes.
‘Tobacco companies deliberately portray smoking as desirable for young people by placing cigarettes in the hands of celebrities, and by associating smoking with desirable youth lifestyles.
‘Showing the world the cigarette brand you’re smoking is a statement about who you are. For young people the message is: smoke to be cool, sexy, thin, tough, bad or rebellious.
‘Take away the brand name, logo and colours and the pack is harder to link to the desirable image that has been built up.’
Professor Swerissen says that once addicted, on average about 55 percent of smokers keep smoking. In today’s money, a 100 cigarette a week smoker is worth about $3,500 per year to a tobacco company – $175,000 over 50 years.
Despite declining cigarette sales, tobacco companies in Australia continue to make more than $300 million in profits each year.
‘Young people don’t think about the fact that smoking is like bungy jumping with a frayed rope. It’s a long jump, but 40 years later there’s a good chance you’ll be dead at the bottom with cancer, heart disease or emphysema – along with 15,000 other Australians. But that’s not what you think about when you’re 20.’
Professor Swerissen says in considering the arguments of the tobacco industry against the introduction of plain cigarette packaging, it’s important for legislators to remember that the average age at which smoking starts is 16.
‘If tobacco companies can’t get the next set of 16 year olds to experiment, become regular smokers and get addicted, they are out of business.’
He says in the last 30 years Australia has taken a number of sensible steps to reduce the harm caused by tobacco.
‘Cigarette advertising has been banned. Prices have been raised. Health warnings have been introduced and smoking restrictions for public spaces have been put in place.
‘These strategies are working. Plain wrapping is another sensible step along the way.’