War on smoking: Plain facts light up cigarette battle
John Oliver is one of Australia's leading satirists. His TV show pulls in big audiences and he was in particularly fine form earlier this week when targeting the cigarette industry. Tobacco, he quipped, is an "ageing product that's decreasing in popularity and yet somehow it can't stop making money. . . it's basically the agricultural equivalent of U2."
He might have just as easily been talking about Ireland. In a little over a decade, smoking rates have declined dramatically - from 28pc of the over-15 population in 2003 to 19.5pc in 2014. Initiatives like the ban on smoking in the workplace has had a huge impact on both consumption and perception.
But the power of the global smoking lobby has been highlighted this week with the confirmation that one of the world's biggest players, Japan Tobacco International, is promising to sue the Government if Ireland goes ahead with plans to introduce 'plain packaging' for packs of cigarettes. JPI believes such a move would impinge on its intellectual property rights.
For one of the country's leading anti-smoking campaigners, Dr Ross Morgan, 'standardised packaging' as he prefers to call it and featuring the sort of shocking health images that have been on packs in Australia since 2012, will help to reduce the smoking rates here even further. "It's fallen by a third in a space of 10 years and an initiative like this would have a significant impact in bringing the figure down far more," says the Ash Ireland chairman. "We're aiming for a 5pc smoking rate by 2025, which is ambitious, but as smoking becomes even more socially unacceptable and people become yet more health conscious, there's every reason to think that we can get the prevalence way down."
There's still a way to go to match the current Australian figure of 12pc for the entire population. "Australia shows what can be done," Dr Morgan says. "If you look at the prevalence of smoking of those aged 12 to 17, the figure is at 3.4pc, but it's around 11/12pc here." Packaging - with photos of diseased lungs, teeth, etc - would play a big role in helping to dissuade such an impressionable young demographic from smoking."
Dr Morgan, a respiratory medicine specialist at Blackrock Clinic, Dublin, says packaging continues to play a huge part in tobacco's marketing strategy. "The fact that the tobacco industry, which has such financial clout, is willing to take legal action against Ireland, just like it did against Australia, shows how important it considers it packaging to be," he says.
The significance of pack design was illustrated in 2007 when Benson & Hedges increased its sales in Britain by nearly €100m in just 12 months when it introduced its 'silver slide' pack.
Prof Robert West, editor of the scientific journal Addiction, believes tobacco companies place huge emphasis on packaging in order to 'recruit' new smokers. "One of the things that people get wrong is that it is a deterrent for people who are already smoking. No. It isn't," he says. "The main point is to prevent the tobacco industry from (using it) as an advertising, or promotional tool. We have closed off most of the other routes: TV advertising, for example. But the pack is still potentially a very important tool for what is essentially a lethal product."
He contends that Australia's plain packaging legislation has, in a period of just three years, helped lower "the unconscious triggers" that encourage smokers to begin the habit, but crucially has also helped to dissuade non-smokers, or early-stage addicts not to go further.
Dr Ross Morgan says the industry has a long track record of targeting young women, in particular, with seductive branding. "That's still reflected on the packs," he says. "And there's still a perception among some that smoking can be a slimming aid - and is it any wonder when you think about a popular brand with the name Virginia Slims?"
Ultimately, he believes that when people are confronted with the real dangers - such as the HSE's campaign that "one in two smokers will die of a tobacco-related illness" - they will try to quit or not start.
"Every day, I'm seeing people who have lung disease, which remains the cancer that kills most of us each year. It's all down to smoking and if changing the packs cuts even some of that down, then it's a no-brainer."