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WHO: Plain packs for cigarettes to 'go global'

England, France and Australia are the first three countries in the world to plan their introduction, with nine others considering a requirement for standard packaging as well.

By Stephen Feller
Standardized, plain cigarette packages, pictured, were introduced in Australia in 2012 and are credited with an additional 0.55 percent decrease in smoking prevalence in the years since. Two other countries are preparing to introduce similar packages, and nine others are considering it, according to the World Health Organization. Photo by Commonwealth of Australia/WHO
Standardized, plain cigarette packages, pictured, were introduced in Australia in 2012 and are credited with an additional 0.55 percent decrease in smoking prevalence in the years since. Two other countries are preparing to introduce similar packages, and nine others are considering it, according to the World Health Organization. Photo by Commonwealth of Australia/WHO

GENEVA, Switzerland, May 31 (UPI) -- During the song "Satisfaction," Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger sings of having less respect for a TV news anchor because he "doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as me" -- a social signal the World Health Organization hopes to eliminate as part of its work to discourage people from the habit.

The WHO announced today that an effort to convince countries to require standardized, plain packaging on cigarettes has been adopted by France and England, and is being considered by nine others, after its apparent success in Australia.

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Prohibiting the use of logos, colors, images or other promotional information beyond mandated warnings is part of recommended reforms the organization is promoting to governments around the world as part of World No Tobacco Day.

Plain packaging has been credited with helping to reduce smoking in Australia since being adopted in 2012, with an additional 0.55 percent decline in smoking among people age 14 and older seen since packages changed, according to the WHO.

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"Plain packaging reduces the attractiveness of tobacco products," Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said in a press release. "It kills the glamour, which is appropriate for a product that kills people. It restricts tobacco advertising and promotion. It limits misleading packaging and labelling. And it increases the effectiveness of health warnings."

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Earlier this month, France, Great Britain and Northern Ireland started implementing requirements for the packages, and leaders in Ireland also plan to introduce it. Other countries investigating the plain packaging concept include Norway, Singapore, Canada, Chile, Panama, New Zealand and Belgium.

Many of the countries considering plain packaging, and others around the world, already include large warnings about health risk, and some also include pictures of disease, which have been shown in some cases to reduce smoking.

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The U.K.-based Tobacco Manufacturers Association has made several statements against the packaging idea, including a statement that it is "not delivering on any of its objectives in Australia," though WHO officials suggest the statements are a move to prevent the change.

A University of Illinois study found both smokers and non-smokers were offended by packaging that included graphic messages and images on cigarette packs, with some claiming they felt it was an affront to their freedom of choice, suggesting plain packs may be less offensive but just as effective.

Some studies have also shown that increased prices and taxes, along with an increased social stigma attached to smoking, have had a greater role at reducing the number of people who light up. Based on the statistics from Australia, however, the WHO is pushing ahead with the plain packaging effort.

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"There's massive opposition from the tobacco companies -- all of them are opposed to it because it's going to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use," Dr. Benn McGrady, a technical officer at the WHO, told The BBC. "We're on the cusp of something very big here and it's going to have quite a significant impact on public health."

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