* Tough Australian anti-smoking laws come into force Dec. 1
* Plain packs, graphic pictures replace logos, bright
* Online, social media final frontier for tobacco companies
* Australian laws, eyed by other countries, face WTO
By Jane Wardell
SYDNEY, Nov 30 James Yu, who runs the King of
the Pack tobacconist in central Sydney, is indignant about
Australia's stringent anti-tobacco laws making manufacuters
package cigarettes in drab olive green packs with pictures of
ill babies and diseased body parts.
The packages, mandatory from Saturday when the laws take
effect, make it hard to tell brands apart, complicating
deliveries and adding to costs in his cramped, dark booth.
The legislation, the most Draconian in the world, strips
packs of all branding, bright colours and logos, leaving only
the name printed in identical small font.
"It used to take me an hour to unload a delivery, now it
takes me four hours," Yu said, demonstrating how difficult it is
to find the brand names.
"The government should have just banned them altogether and
then we'd go ok, fine, we're done, we'll shut up shop," he said,
throwing his hands up in the air.
Australia's plain packaging laws are a potential watershed
for the global industry, which serves 1 billion regular smokers,
according to World Health Organization statistics.
While Australia has one of the world's lowest smoking rates
and the changes will have little impact on multinationals'
profits, other countries are considering similar steps.
The government says the aim is to deter young people from
smoking by stripping the habit of glamour. It is relying on
studies showing that if people have not started smoking by age
26, there is a 99 percent chance they will never take it up.
"Even from a very early age, you can see that kids
understand the message that the tobacco company is trying to
sell through their branding," Federal Health Minister Tanya
Plibersek told Reuters, citing studies that showed children made
linkages such as crown logos and princesses.
The potential hitch, experts say, is the popularity of
social media with the very demographic the plan is targeting.
After a series of Australian laws banning TV advertising and
sports sponsorship and requiring most sellers to hide cigarettes
from view, online is the final frontier for tobacco marketing.
Australia has banned online advertising by local companies
and sites, but the door cannot be slammed at the border.
"If you are a tobacco marketer and you've only got this
small window left to promote your products, online is the
compelling place for you to be in," said Becky Freeman, a public
health researcher at Sydney University.
Freeman noted an increase in "average Joe" reviews of brands
on social media sites such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.
"We have to ask, is that just a private citizen who really
loves Marlboro cigarettes and they've gone to the trouble of
making a video, or is there a marketing company involved?"
Scott McIntyre of British American Tobacco Australia, maker
of Winfield cigarettes, made popular by ads featuring "Crocodile
Dundee" actor Paul Hogan in the 1970s, said the industry was
focused on dealing with the new rules rather than marketing.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
The industry lobbied hard against the laws. Tobacco firms
said they would boost black market trade, leading to cheaper,
more accessible cigarettes.
"There will be serious unintended consequences from the
legislation," said McIntyre. "Counterfeiters from China and
Indonesia will bring lots more of these products down to sell on
the streets of Australia."
Others say the laws have boosted their business.
Sandra Ha of Zico Import Pty Ltd, a small family business,
said demand for cigarette cases, silicon covers to mask the
unpalatable packages, had shot up from almost nothing two months
ago since British American Tobacco, Britain's Imperial
Tobacco, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco
lost a challenge to the laws in Australia's High Court.
Ha said Zico had sold up to 6,000 to wholesale outlets and
was awaiting new stock. "This is good business for us."
The industry has shifted its focus to potential copycat
legislation elsewhere. Ukraine, Honduras and the Dominican
Republic have filed complaints with the World Trade
Organization, funded by the tobacco industry, claiming the laws
unfairly restrict trade, although their trade with Australia is
A WTO ruling is likely in mid-2013.
Plibersek said the government has held discussions with
other countries considering similar laws.
Canada was the first country to make photograph warnings
mandatory in 2001. They now extend to more than 40 countries,
including Brazil, Turkey and Ukraine. Tougher laws are being
considered in Britain, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
Many smokers in Australia remain defiant.
"The pictures don't affect me. I just ignore them. You just
grab a smoke and put it away," said Victor El Hage as he
purchased a pack with a photograph of a mouth tumour. "Honestly,
there's only one reason I'd stop, and that's my little girl."