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Plain tobacco packaging increases purchases and contraband, Australian prof says

Sinclair Davidson, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University professor of economics, says in his country, the policy has actually increased tobacco purchases and the availability of contraband and illegal tobacco.

Sinclair Davidson says 2012 policy increased contraband tobacco by 26 percent

At right, Australian cigarette packages after plain packaging was introduced in that country. On left, what the packages used to look like before the new law. (David Hammond/University of Waterloo)

The federal government is thinking about imposing plain packaging of tobacco products in order to discourage people from smoking.

The idea is by removing logos, colours and images from packaging, tobacco products would seem less attractive and smoking rates will go down.

But a researcher in Australia — where such a policy was implemented in 2012 — says the initiative won't work if Canada's experience turns out like the experience of his country.

"Once you take into account the price effects and you take into account the general decline in smoking anyway, there's no evidence to support the hypothesis that the plain packaging had any effect in itself," Sinclair Davidson, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University professor of economics, told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

"As a matter of fact, household expenditure on tobacco products went up in the year after the introduction of plain packaging."

Davidson's theory is as brand loyalty dissipated and packaging was made generic, smokers were happy to buy illegal or contraband tobacco at half the price of tobacco in stores. He says there was a "massive" 26 percent increase in illegal tobacco and contraband tobacco after the introduction of plain packaging.

"If you look at the data, there's a very clear turning point when the policy is introduced," he said.

He says it's not clear if the increased tobacco spending reflects existing smokers buying more, or if it reflects new smokers picking up the habit.

Davidson's findings contrast sharply with what the Australian government says about the effectiveness of plain packaging.

On a website presenting evidence from a 2016 review of the policy, the government reported "early available evidence indicates that the measure is beginning to achieve its public health objectives and is expected to continue to do so into the future."

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Smoke and mirrors? Australian professor says plain tobacco packaging doesn't work