The country’s Bureau of Statistics says household consumption of tobacco fell 4.9 percent during the year that ended in March and clipped a small but still noteworthy 0.1 percentage point from Australia’s gross domestic product in the first quarter of this year. Consumption of cigarettes and tobacco dropped 7.6 percent in the first quarter, Commonwealth Bank economists said in a research note.
Although the data, released last week, does not show the rate of change, it illustrates that total consumption fell, according to the statistics bureau, which warned that the figures could be subject to seasonal revisions.
“We are seeing a very encouraging trend,” said Mike Daube, professor of health policy at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. “The numbers are heading in the right direction.”
Stephen Koukoulas, managing director of the Canberra-based Market Economics, agreed that tobacco consumption seemed to have dropped in the 15 months since the packaging law, the world’s most restrictive, went into effect.
“Plain packaging is one of many measures, including high taxes and laws that restrict where you can smoke, that are having an impact,” he said. “The national accounts data is the first sign since plain packaging was introduced that consumption has fallen away.”
But British American Tobacco Australia said that industry sales volumes were up, and that the decline in the rate at which smokers start had slowed.
“A year after plain packaging was introduced, industry volumes had actually grown for the first time in over a decade,” a company spokesman, Scott McIntyre, said in a news release. Tobacco industry data shows the decline in the number of people smoking “has slowed by more than half to 1.4 percent” since plain packaging was introduced, he said in a telephone interview.
British American Tobacco Australia has about 45 percent of the Australian market of 3.5 million smokers, with brands like Winfield, Benson & Hedges and Rothmans. Mr. McIntyre said the sales data was prepared by a third party and could not be released.
Manufacturers fought Australia’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 in the country’s High Court and lost in 2012, before the fight moved to the World Trade Organization. A W.T.O. panel will investigate complaints made by Ukraine, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Indonesia, who argue that Australia’s laws breach world trade agreements, including trademark rights.
Jonathan Liberman, a lawyer and the director of the McCabe Center for Law and Cancer in Melbourne, said the proceedings at the W.T.O. “have so far moved very slowly.”
“It is in the interests of those opposed to plain packaging to draw these things out,” he said. “Australia’s move was globally significant, and a W.T.O. decision in Australia’s favor would be devastating for the tobacco industry.”
It seems likely other countries will follow Australia’s lead. In Britain, an independent review by a prominent doctor, Cyril Chantler, found “standardized packaging would serve to reduce the rate of children taking up smoking.” He said in his April report on plain packaging to the British government that it was “implausible that it would increase the consumption of tobacco.”
Ireland’s health minister, James Reilly, said on Tuesday that the government had approved a draft bill on plain packaging, and in New Zealand, a bill has been presented to Parliament, where the associate health minister, Tariana Turia, said plain packaging “takes away the last means of promoting tobacco as a desirable product.”
Australia’s legislation is so proscriptive that starting in December 2012, manufacturers had to sell cigarettes in plain “drab dark brown” packs, devoid of logos but heavy with health warnings and grisly photos of cancer patients.
Kylie Lindorff of the nonprofit Cancer Council of Victoria said packaging could feature photos of limbs with gangrene, eyeballs affected by cancer, or a skeletal man dying of lung cancer, accompanied by large-font statements like “smoking causes lung cancer” or “cancer causes peripheral vascular disease.” The aim was to limit tobacco companies’ global reach and the appeal of brands like Marlboro and Camel to young adults. The Labor government in power at the time further put into effect extra taxes on smokers, already among the highest in the world.
“Price signals really work,” said Michael Workman, a Commonwealth Bank senior economist. “Sin taxes work, especially if the government has a bigger motive about escalating health costs.”
In August 2013, the Labor government imposed a 12.5 percent increase in the excise rate on tobacco, to be applied each year for four years, starting in December 2013, with subsequent increases starting this September. The measures are backed by the current Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The Australian Taxation Office says that for every cigarette sold in Australia, about 40 Australian cents, or $0.38, is collected in excise, a tax that has almost doubled in a little over a decade. A packet of 25 cigarettes, bought at a supermarket or a convenience store, can range in price from 13 to 25 Australian dollars.
Mr. Workman said the fall in tobacco consumption went against a trend in the national economic data, which showed rising demand for clothing, up 5.2 percent; food, up 2.2 percent; and alcohol, up 1.7 percent, over the first quarter of 2014.