The Magazine

In a Plain Brown Package

Australia’s doomed effort to kill tobacco sales.

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By P.  J. O’ROURKE
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I'm sitting at my desk, looking at a photograph of a gangrenous foot. It is a bloated thing in hues of phlegmatic gray rot, sanguine inflammation, melancholic black bile, and choleric open sores​—​exhibiting all the humors of a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Above the photograph, in bold white capitals on a dull, matte background are the words “smoking causes peripheral vascular disease.” The photograph is helpfully labeled “gangrene.” Below the photograph, in a bland sans-serif typeface with letters an eighth of an inch high, is “Marlboro Red.”



This is a pack of Australian cigarettes, conforming to that nation’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act. The act went into effect on December 1, 2012, and is the strictest such legislation in the world.

The act isn’t very strict in its use of the word “plain.” I had to go through 35½ column inches of the Oxford English Dictionary before I arrived at definition 17, “homely: often used euphemistically for ill-favored, ugly.”

And the plain fact is I’ve been a journalist for more than four decades. I’ve listened to a lot of wild tales. But nothing I’ve ever heard​—​not even in the most hyperbolical regions of the Middle East from fantastical lunatics making their farthest-fetched pronouncements​—​can match “My mother died of foot gangrene from smoking.”

If putrid tootsies are not your style, there are a variety of other government-mandated images displayed on Australian cigarette packs, such as rotted gums, diseased lungs, a blind eye, a smoker’s corpse, and tongue cancer. Though the tongue cancer photo doesn’t really come off. It has the look of a graphic pornography extreme close-up where the close-up is so extreme that the graphic has displaced the porn.

Nonetheless this is a brilliant marketing campaign by the Australian authorities, doubtless designed to increase tax revenue from cigarette sales to junior high school boys. If I were in junior high I’d promptly find a way to buy (bribing an older brother or cousin, if need be) this incredibly disgusting flip-top box. And then I would be beside myself with eagerness to get to school the next day and usher my pals into the boys’ room to show off my gruesome, shoeless, sockless purchase.

In the World Gross-Out Champ-ionship, which is the preeminent event and main purpose of seventh grade, I’d retire the cup. At recess we’d show the pack to the girls, eliciting the highly coveted “ICK!” shriek. After school a certain kind of girl, the kind who made our hearts flutter (which Australia warns that cigarettes also do), would ask, “Can I try one?”

Of course we’d smoke the things. Who could resist? I can’t resist myself. As a confirmed cigar-smoker, I don’t care much for cigarettes. But the 13-year-old abides in us all. And it’s an affair of honor. I am devoted to Lady Nicotine. She has been insulted.

Hmm .  .  . they’re not bad. A little stale from travel, perhaps, but “tastes good like a cigarette should.” Or was that Winstons? No brand name appears on the individual cigarettes, just a cryptic “A001” in tiny type below the filter. That leaves me wondering if I should smoke them, in espionage novel fashion, wrong-way-round, leaving no trace of my presence to be detected by enemy spies in the employ of another branch of the U.N., the World Health Organization. But this is not a bright idea with filter cigarettes.

And “plain packaging” is not a bright idea period. Let me withdraw any imputation of base motives to the Australian government and stipulate that its legislators mean well. Legislators always mean well. They say so themselves. But​—​as certain well-meaning legislators in another country have discovered with certain well-meaning legislation about another health issue​—​meaning well is not synonymous with doing good.

Australia’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act hasn’t done any good. According to a report prepared by the auditing and consulting firm KPMG for tobacco companies doing business in Australia, the sale of cigarettes and loose tobacco for rolling cigarettes had been declining in that country by an average rate of 1.8 percent a year since 2000. Following the imposition of plain packaging a year ago, however, “total consumption of tobacco .  .  . appears to be stable.”

Sales of legally packaged and lawfully retailed Australian cigarettes are down. No surprise given that most smoking is not done in seventh-grade boys’ rooms and that a pack of cigarettes in Australia costs nearly $16. (The Australian dollar is worth approximately the same as the U.S. dollar except it has a kangaroo on it instead of George Washington.)

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