In the WHO South-East Asia Region (SEAR), nearly 1.3 million people die every year due to tobacco usage. That’s 150 deaths per hour. Nearly 246 million adults smoke this cancer-causing agent while 290 million consume its smokeless forms. One of the most powerful ways to curb tobacco use is to opt for plain packaging. This means that logos, colours, brand images or promotional information are removed from the product packet. Instead, tobacco packaging features black-and-white or other contrasting colour combinations, a brand name, a product name and/or a manufacturer’s name and most importantly, graphic health warnings on it. The net result: The product will be less appealing.
Australia is the pioneer of the plain packaging initiative since December 2012. Research shows that plain tobacco packages have diminished appeal and have resulted in declining rates of tobacco use. Today, Australia’s daily smoking rate among in the 14+ age group has declined from 15.1% to 12.8% (2010-13). At present, France, Britain and Ireland are following the Australian example.
The passage of plain-packaging legislation has been limited to high-income countries. This needs to change. While tobacco consumption is on a downward trend among these countries, the opposite is true in low- and middle-income countries. The developing economies of SEAR remain key markets for tobacco companies, who will fight to retain influence, brand loyalty and expand their markets. The cost of allowing this will be disastrous: Economies will be less productive; health care costs will increase; and the tobacco-poverty cycle will become entrenched.
Important steps have been taken to control tobacco use across the SEAR. Ten of the region’s 11 member countries are parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and they have implemented tobacco control legislation in line with the Convention’s provisions. Nepal, for example, has decided to have health warnings cover 90% of the principal display area of tobacco packs, while in Thailand health warnings cover 85% of cigarette packs on both sides. India recently increased the size of warnings from 40% on the front to 85% on both sides of all tobacco products packs.
But there is considerable room for improvement. Children, youth and adults in countries across SEAR continue to be subjected to pro-tobacco messages in media. This must stop.
The Seventh Session of the Conference of Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (COP7), hosted by India in November 2016, will be an opportunity to do that. Plain packaging is being considered by lawmakers in India and will become a key tool for tobacco control partners and stakeholders. It is an initiative that will only gain momentum.
Beyond a desire to protect the profit margins of big tobacco, there can be no reason to oppose plain packaging. With plain packaging, individuals will remain free to consume tobacco products but will be more empowered to decide otherwise. This will increase economic productivity and lessen the substantial burden tobacco-related illnesses represent to health services and taxpayers.
Poonam Khetrapal Singh is regional director, WHO South-East Asia Region.