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Why it's time for plain cigarette packaging

The take-home message on smoking from science? Quit now.

Cigarette packaging in Australia. Photo: Getty.

The government has been applauded for picking up the issue of plain packaging for cigarettes, but it should never have dropped the idea in the first place. There is overwhelming evidence that removing the branding from cigarette cartons makes smoking less appealing.

Research published in the British Medical Journal in July showed that Australian smokers perceived plain-packaged cigarettes to be of lower quality, and so less satisfying. Removing the branding made smokers think more often about kicking the habit and put quitting higher on their personal agenda.

Given that children living in a household where a parent or sibling smokes are three times more likely to start doing the same, that can only be a good thing, especially as 91 per cent of smokers first start lighting up in their teenage years. To summarise, the evidence says that if we remove the branding, people enjoy their cigarettes less, are more likely to give up and usually quit sooner. The result will be a lower uptake of smoking in the long term. What’s left to debate?

Female smokers should take special note. Breast cancer might grab more headlines, but lung cancer kills more British women. The UK has the highest rate of female lung cancer in the European Union, and although lung cancer is killing ever fewer men, it is killing increasing numbers of women. Projections from current data tell us that deaths from lung cancer will be down by 19 per cent among UK males by 2030. For women, they will be up by almost 4 per cent.

An epidemic of quitting smoking would change that, as a Cancer Research UK study published in January makes clear. Follow a group of female smokers and an equal number of non-smokers for just 12 years, and by the end of your study there will be three dead smokers for every dead non-smoker. Two-thirds of female smokers who die in their fifties, sixties and seventies in the UK are killed by the tobacco smoke they have inhaled over the years.

The change in people’s prospects if you can get them to quit is startling. Quit by the age of 40, and the increased chance of dying due to having been a smoker drops by over 90 per cent. Quit before you’re 30, and the increased risk falls by 97 per cent. The take-home message from science? Quit now.

We’re not exactly bursting with resources to deal with the disease. The UK Lung Cancer Coalition reported in November that 46 per cent of lung cancer patients had experienced delays in their care; more than half had received inaccurate information about their diagnosis.

Here’s another number for you – 9 per cent. That’s your chance of being alive five years after a diagnosis of lung cancer. And don’t think that science is about to come up with a miracle cure. The development of designer drugs that attack the genetic features of a specific cancer may sound like an impressive advance, but analysis of the effects of 15 “breakthrough” therapies, published this past week, has shown them to be far less effective than initially thought.

The one positive development is that the take-up of smoking among young women is falling slowly in the UK. The present high death rates can be traced to women who started smoking in the 1960s and 1970s, but that peak in uptake has passed. Only two years ago, girls were adopting the habit at a higher rate, but girls aged 11-15 are now no more likely to smoke than boys in the same age group.

Still, at a time when 570 children start smoking in the UK every day, deciding whether to introduce plain cigarette packaging to deter new smokers isn’t rocket science.