The reason they’re leaping up and down and screaming now, Now! NOW! is that the evidence of the effectiveness of the idea is now coming in. And it simply doesn’t work: it does not do what it is claimed it should do. Regardless of what you think about the desirability of curtailing commercial freedom in the cause of reducing smoking rates, plain packaging simply doesn’t reduce smoking rates.
Australia's nationwide smoking prevalence survey only takes place every three years and shows a steady decline, as seen in most developed countries.
Almost incredibly, this survey is cited by campaigners as proof that plain packaging 'works'. They say that smoking rates in 2013 were the lowest on record and that plain packaging is responsible. Obviously, smoking rates were also the lowest on record in 2010, 2007, 2004 etc. in the absence of plain packaging. Smoking rates are also the lowest on record in the UK in the absence of plain packaging. Not only is it a daft argument, it also ignores the evidence of smoking rates amongst 12-17 year olds from the same survey.
There is an obvious problem with this survey insofar as plain packaging is concerned. The policy was introduced in December 2012 and the survey only has figures for 2010 and 2013. What we really need is a comparison between 2012 and 2013 and for that we have to look at the surveys from individual states.
Last year, I mentioned the evidence from New South Wales - the most heavily populated state - which shows that smoking prevalence was slightly lower in 2013 (16.4%) than in 2012, but was still higher than it had been in 2011 (14.7%). Taken together, as I said at the time, the surveys show "seven years of essentially static smoking rates from 2006 to 2013, at a time when graphic health warnings, display bans, plain packaging and banning smoking in pubs, in cars and outdoors were all introduced with great fanfare."
I also mentioned that South Australia's health minister had complained about an "increase in the state’s smoking rates" since plain packaging came in.
We now have the data to support this. The survey from South Australia does indeed show that smoking prevalence rose from 16.7% to 19.4% between 2012 and 2013.
In addition, we also have data from Queensland which show that smoking prevalence was 14.3% in 2012 but had risen to 15.8% in 2013. This is consistent with the "sharp increase in the prevalence of smoking among Queenslanders aged between 25 and 34 years old over the past two years" that Cancer Council Queensland reported last year.
And in Western Australia smoking prevalence also rose, albeit marginally, from 12.7% in 2012 to 13.0% in 2013.
The interesting aspect of the states' evidence is that they all show a lower smoking rate in 2013 than in 2010—in line with the national survey—but in none of these four states was the 2013 figure the lowest on record. They had all had a lower smoking rate before plain packaging was introduced (in 2011 in NSW and in 2012 in the rest).
The other Australian states, including Tasmania and Victoria, have not yet published figures for 2013, but the data from New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland covers the majority of the population. There is a margin of error in all smoking prevalence estimates, of course, but the evidence above does not provide the slightest indication that plain packaging led to a fall in smoking prevalence after December 2012. On the contrary, it is consistent with there being a rise.
Contrast this empirical evidence with the claim that there has been "a massive decline in smoking prevalence in Australia following introduction of standardised packaging" (Deborah Arnott, ASH), or that a "dramatic decline in smoking rates has coincided with the introduction of plain-packaging laws" (Sydney Morning Herald) and you can see that there is no limit to the amount of garbage that anti-smoking campaigners will spout.