The Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 describes its objectives as follows:
3 Objects of this Act are
(1) The objects of this Act are:
(a) to improve public health by:
(i) discouraging people from taking up smoking, or using tobacco products; and
(ii) encouraging people to give up smoking, and to stop using tobacco products; and
(iii) discouraging people who have given up smoking, or who have stopped using tobacco products, from relapsing; and
(iv) reducing people’s exposure to smoke from tobacco products; and
(b) to give effect to certain obligations that Australia has as a party to the Convention on Tobacco Control.
(2) It is the intention of the Parliament to contribute to achieving the objects in subsection (1) by regulating the retail packaging and appearance of tobacco products in order to:
(a) reduce the appeal of tobacco products to consumers; and
(b) increase the effectiveness of health warnings on the retail packaging of tobacco products; and
(c) reduce the ability of the retail packaging of tobacco products to mislead consumers about the harmful effects of smoking or using tobacco products.
So I read that as follows: The objective of the act set on section 3(1) is to reduce the incidence of tobacco consumption, while section 3(2) sets out a strategy for doing so.
That provides some interesting background to this exchange at Senate Estimates:
Senator LEYONHJELM: Put that on notice as well, if you can, to please provide it. Your department’s website says that the key findings of the survey were that the objectives of tobacco plain packaging were achieved. Given that is a departmental website—we are not referring to Professor Wakefield’s here—can you tell me: was there a key finding from the survey that plain packaging improved public health?
Ms Davies: The language on the website reflects the broad findings in the BMJ articles published on 19 March last year. They were referencing the proximal objectives as they are referred to in those articles. I think the department ordinarily now refers to them as the mechanisms, which are found in section 3(2) of the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act under the objects of the act.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes, that is why I am asking the questions. Was there a key finding that plain packaging improved public health? That is one of the objectives.
Ms Davies: The tracking survey and the BMJ articles that relate to the tracking survey were not designed to measure prevalence and cannot measure prevalence.
Senator LEYONHJELM: So it did not measure whether there was increased giving up of smoking?
Ms Davies: As I said, the design of the tracking survey and the articles in the BMJ that discuss it largely related to the section 3(2) mechanisms—so reducing the appeal of the packet, increasing the effectiveness of graphic health warnings and minimising the pack’s ability to mislead. In the long term, those three mechanisms work to reduce prevalence.
Senator LEYONHJELM: How do you know? The post-implementation review is intended to determine whether the objectives of the legislation are being achieved.
Ms Davies: That is correct, and the post-implementation review looks at evidence that goes to both section 3(1), which is the broader public health objectives that you are speaking of—the longer term ones—and also the mechanisms by which those objectives are intended to be achieved, which are the proximal objectives.
Senator LEYONHJELM: The objects of the act are to improve public health, so if we cannot tell from the survey that the introduction of plain packaging improved public health then we have not established whether the act is doing what it is intended to do.
So we have Health Department officials telling the Parliament that the tracking study was not designed to determine any improvement in public health but rather whether smokers liked or disliked the packaging and/or took greater notice of health warnings and the like. Yet last year in the special issue of Tobacco Control we read:
Plain packaging in Australia has been a casebook example of effective tobacco control—a policy measure driven by evidence, carefully designed and implemented, and now rigorously assessed.
But what exactly is being assessed? Didn’t we already know that smokers disliked the olive green packs? That the colouring and design was specifically chosen to be unattractive? Yes, we did.
So why then did the federal government give $3 million to the Victorian Cancer Council to re-establish what it already knew? Why was that research project not put out to tender? Why was a research project to track smoking prevalence – the primary objective of the Plain Packaging Act – not commissioned?
Then there is this:
Senator LEYONHJELM: Was Professor Wakefield a prior advocate of plain packaging?
Dr Studdert: Professor Wakefield has been involved in a wide range of tobacco related research over many years. I do not think it would be fair to say that she is an advocate. I think she is a researcher who has done a broad range of research in a range of areas related to tobacco control.
Senator LEYONHJELM: I am aware she has done a lot of research in this area, but my question is: has she been a prior advocate of plain packaging?
Dr Studdert: As I said, I do not think we would categorise her as an advocate. She has been a researcher for many years in a range of fields related to tobacco control.
Senator LEYONHJELM: So you are saying no, she is not an advocate, yes, she is, or you do not know?
Dr Studdert: Those are not the terms of our engagement with her over many years in relation to tobacco research.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes, I know, but you have done a lot of work with her and she has done a lot of work with you. Are you saying you do not know what her views are?
Mr Bowles: I think that what was said is that she has worked in the field of tobacco control for a long period of time.
Senator LEYONHJELM: I heard that, Mr Bowles. I am still interested in the answer: do you believe she has been an advocate of plain packaging?
Dr Studdert: I think she has been an advocate for supporting the evidence base for good policy measures. Yes, I think many—
Senator LEYONHJELM: Would she consider good policy to be plain packaging?
Dr Studdert: I would say yes, because she has done a lot of research in this area and knows the evidence base that supports that policy.
Mr Bowles: That said, it is probably a question best asked of her.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes. It is inconceivable given the longstanding relationship between the department and Professor Wakefield that you do not know what her views are.
Mr Bowles: No-one said the views were not known. She is a long-term researcher in tobacco control, so there will be elements of plain packaging, as there will be other elements of tobacco control. I just make the point that we cannot really talk on her behalf about some of her beliefs and all those sorts of issues.
Simply astonishing – the Health Department cannot repeat in the Parliament what is public knowledge:
Competing interests The authors wish to advise that MS was a technical writer for and [Melanie Wakefield] a member of the Tobacco Working Group of the Australian National Preventive Health Task Force and [Melanie Wakefield] was a member of the Expert Advisory Committee on Plain Packaging that advised the Australian Department of Health on research pertaining to the plain packaging legislation. [Melanie Wakefield] holds competitive grant funding from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, US National Institutes of Health, Australian National Preventive Health Agency and BUPA Health Foundation.