The cabinet of horrors in every convenience store

It’s been six months since the government hit big tobacco companies where it really hurt them – their brands.

So here’s a little weekend tale, if anyone needed reminding:

A little while ago, needing a few groceries, I drove up to the local store, parked the car, dashed in from the rain, grabbed a few items from the shelves and headed for the counter to find myself staring inside a veritable cabinet of horrors.plain packaging

It was the kind of scene that would, were it broadcast on the news, come with a warning: “The following graphic imagery may disturb sensitive viewers. Viewer discretion advised”.

But what choice did I have other than to look?

Behind the head of the little Asian man serving me were images of diseased and blackened limbs, a cancerous, dissected lung, an eye socket prized open like a scene from the movie ‘A Clockwork Orange’, and an emaciated man dying in a bed.

All of these images were on the covers of cigarette packs stacked up in what looked like a white medicine cabinet, the doors flung open.

Instead of medicine though, it’s death that’s up for sale.

plain packaging2These graphic, nausea-inducing images are to be found everywhere on billboards, in bus shelters, in print and online advertising,on the government’s department of health and ageing website, and in discarded cigarette packs on suburban streets.

As I paid for my eggs, milk and bread, I was thinking, “Do I have to see all of this?”

All of this is courtesy of the government’s much trumpeted ‘plain packaging’ requirements for all tobacco products, introduced on December 1 last year, which state that:

“All tobacco products sold, offered for sale or otherwise supplied in Australia must be in plain packaging and be labelled with the new and expanded health warnings”.

Just why the government has called its legislation “plain packaging” when it’s quite the opposite is probably the reason I’m a journalist and not a politician.

The idea behind plain packaging is to prevent the misleading advertising of tobacco products with images and words aimed at discouraging new smokers from taking up the habit and convincing those who currently smoke to quit.

According to the government, an estimated 15,000 Australians die every year from smoking-related disease, costing the Australian economy and society approximately $31.5 billion a year.

It’s the government’s key strategy in a very bitter battle against the tobacco industry alongside a raft of other measures that include a 25% tobacco excise increase in April 2010, more than $85 million spent on anti-smoking social marketing campaigns and legislation to restrict internet advertising of tobacco products.

That’s fair enough and commendable.

But what about those of us who don’t smoke?

What about our rights to enjoy a pleasant afternoon in the convenience store without being visually assaulted by images of a blackened, gangrenous foot or a spliced open, diseased pair of lungs?

Has the government gone too far?

More importantly are these graphic images really necessary and do they actually work?

The government says “branding and packaging designs on tobacco products can mislead consumers” (who can forget the Marlboro Man?) but is there any evidence that these images are discouraging anyone from giving up or starting to smoke?

That answer won’t be known for a number of years since Australia is the first country to implement this policy, though according to anti-smoking campaigner Anne Jones, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, there are “130 published research studies showing that young people perceive tobacco in plain packs to be less appealing, less palatable and of lower quality”.

And what about the advertising of two other major social ills: alcohol and gambling? Why have they gotten off so easily?

Clearly there is a difference between alcohol and gambling…and smoking.

Smoking is bad, period, but having a flutter on the horses or a glass or two of vino is not going to do any major damage.

But when either drinking or gambling are done excessively, the effects are just as damaging as smoking; indeed while smoking is usually a gradual decent into ill-health, a night of heavy drinking or one spent in front of a pokie machine can ruin a life in a very short time.

And while the proportion of people who drink excessively has hardly fallen in recent year – around one in five according to the most Australian Bureau of Statistics figures – smoking rates are going in the opposite direction, before plain packaging rules were enforced.

An article in The Age published in November last year reported that about 16.3% of adults smoked daily in 2011-12, well down from 2001 rates of 22.4%.

Indeed, smoking rates have fallen been for decades, with figures from Quit Australia showing that the smoking rate was 72% in males in 1945, 40% in 1980 and 25% in 2001.

And yet what do we get: a grotesque anti-tobacco campaign on the one hand, but on the other, ad after ad on the television, radio, print and online promoting beer, wine and spirits, while the pubs and clubs are stacked full with pokie machines and hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on new 24 hour casinos.

There’s even giant ads courtesy of TAB extolling the virtues of winning at gambling (the one below in Southern Cross train station) and a smug Tom Waterhouse in his suits saying its cool to have bet after bet after bet.

"The joy of gambling" - one of three giant TAB ads at Southern Cross station

“The joy of gambling” – one of three giant TAB ads at Southern Cross station

In contrast, cigarette advertising has been banned on Australian television since 1974 and in sports since 1992 (with a stay of execution granted to Formula One racing until 2006).

The government trumps its victory over big tobacco, but alcoholic beverage makers and the casino operators and bookies get a virtual free ride.

Perhaps they’re funding election campaigns, who knows?

But non-smokers like me, the vast majority of the population, not only have to put up with beer gardens and outdoor cafes packed with smokers, but the graphic images that assault the senses.

And let me ask you this question: have you ever actually heard of anyone quitting smoking because of the images and warnings on the packs?

All I see is smokers happily taking cigarettes from their “plain” packs, lighting up and puffing away while I get to ‘enjoy’ the image of a foot gone black with gangrene while I do my shopping.

But perhaps, I’ve got it all wrong.

Maybe, the real reason behind plain packaging campaign is not about smoking at all, but aimed at tackling another chronic issue in Australia: obesity.

In that regard, it will probably work a treat!


2 thoughts on “The cabinet of horrors in every convenience store

    1. Thanks for the comment Myriam. I think most smokers disregard the images entirely. If they did consider them, surely they’d be quitting in droves? Smokers are interested in the cigarette, not the packet, which is usually in their pocket or handbag.


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