Canberra: Australia's government has unveiled plans for some of the world's toughest anti-smoking laws, saying it would force big tobacco companies to use plain green packaging for cigarettes despite the threat of industry legal action.
Minister for Health and Ageing Nicola Roxon said on Thursday the draft laws, which will shortly go to parliament, would, if passed, help reduce thousands of smoking-related deaths each year that cost the economy A$31.5 billion ($32.9 billion).
"This plain packaging legislation is a world first and sends a clear message that the glamour is gone. Cigarette packs will now only show the death and disease that can come from smoking," Roxon told reporters.
The Australian tobacco market generated total revenue of A$9.98 billion in 2009, up from A$8.3 billion the previous year, although smoking generally has been declining. Around 22 billion sticks are sold in the country each year.
The country's health authorities say smoking-related illnesses kill more than 15,000 Australians each year and that smoking is the largest preventable cause of disease and death.
The conservative opposition has yet to decide whether to back the legislation, meaning the minority Labor government may have to convince independent and Green lawmakers to support it.
British American Tobacco Australia , whose brands include Winfield, Dunhill and Benson & Hedges, said the government's plans would infringe international trademark and intellectual property laws.
"The government could end up wasting millions of taxpayers' dollars in legal fees trying to defend their decision, let alone the potential to pay billions to the tobacco industry for taking away our intellectual property," BATA spokesman Scott McIntyre said in a statement.
New Zealand, Canada, the European Union and Britain are considering similar laws and governments in those countries are closely watching to see if Australia succeeds.
Analysts say the new rules being explored in Australia and other countries could spread to emerging markets like Brazil, Russia and Indonesia, and threaten growth there.
Roxon said the legislation would restrict tobacco industry logos, brand imagery, colours and promotional text appearing on packs, with the only distinguishing marks being the brand and product name in a standard text and colour.
Olive green packaging had been decided on, because research showed smokers found it the least attractive colour.
The government planned the legislation to take effect at the start of 2012, with all products on sale required to comply with the new laws within six months.
"In addition, health warnings will be updated and increased from 30 percent to 75 percent of the front of the pack, as well as 90 per cent of the back," Roxon said.
The World Health Organization, in its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, advises authorities to "consider adopting measures to restrict or prohibit the use of logos, colours, brand images or promotional information."
Australia already has tough curbs on tobacco advertising, which have helped reduce smoking from 30.5 per cent of the population aged 14 and over in 1988 to 16.6 per cent in 2007. Roxon aims to cut smoking rates below 10 per cent by 2018.