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Ireland's World No Tobacco Day move makes plain sense

Tuesday 4 June, 2013 by Paul Grogan

First appeared Cancer Council Australia blog 31 May 2013

Last week the Irish Government announced that it would introduce legislation to mandate the plain packaging of tobacco products. Congratulating the Irish was a great way to celebrate World No Tobacco Day (31 May).

This year's World No Tobacco Day theme was "Ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship" – and in many developed countries the most effective remaining form of advertising is the pack itself.

The most vocal opponents of Ireland's move will be the usual suspects: those who profit from the marketing of tobacco products to young people. With one in two smokers dying prematurely from the direct effects of smoking, the commercial demands of enticing and addicting new smokers are self-evident.

The tobacco companies will explore every opportunity to thwart Ireland's move, just as they tried unsuccessfully to do in Australia. But as they push back against progress in public health policy, surely they are starting to feel the weight of history pulling us all towards a tobacco-free future.

It will, of course, take time. Worldwide, around 1 billion people smoke. So it's not as if the tobacco companies are going broke. With that kind of turnover, they are infinitely wealthier than the health organisations that try to counter their influence.

But Ireland's decision is significant – just as it was in 2004, when Ireland broke new ground by making its pubs and restaurants smoke-free. It's another blow to a global industry which is looking increasingly to developing countries to grow its business. 

The global public health community is urgently encouraging all nations to take a stronger stand against tobacco use. On current trends, the accumulated global death toll from tobacco is likely to reach 1 billion people later this century. That's an unfathomable amount of preventable, premature death.

This year alone 6 million people will die prematurely because they smoked. And we still have plenty to do in Australia, with more than one in six of us smoking daily – taking an extraordinary risk of developing any of the 15 cancer types caused by smoking. 

But we're heading in the right direction.

Smoking as a population-wide phenomenon only took off in a big way with the mass production – and mass marketing – of packaged cigarettes in the early 20th century.

Marketing took many forms; glamorising smoking was usually the key. Almost all smokers take up the habit in their youth, hence the importance of making tobacco products appeal to the young.

Countries that take tough action to protect young people from tobacco advertising will have healthier populations, which should reflect favourably on their governments. It's universally accepted that life expectancy is one of the most important indicators of good government and of a strong, functional society. After all, most people aspire to live long, healthy lives, and wish the same for their loved ones.

In the 1920s, three in four Australian men smoked. A man born at that time was expected to die on average in his late 50s. Since then, tobacco use, particularly in men, has steadily declined; life expectancy has steadily increased. This is no random coincidence. Reductions in smoking prevalence have led to substantial decreases in the rates of death from tobacco-caused cancers – and the many other illnesses attributed to smoking.

So let's hope Ireland's decision is another event drawing us out of the age of tobacco. If we succeed in eliminating tobacco use as a major cause of death and disease, smoking will be viewed historically as a cultural aberration. Those who oppose plain packaging are trying to trap us in the tobacco dark ages.

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