By Jonathan Pearlman, The Straits Times, 26 Nov 2012
SYDNEY - At a busy convenience store in Sydney, owner Joe Xia opens a cupboard to reveal his new stock of cigarettes. It is not a pretty sight.
The cigarettes come in mandatory olive-coloured plain packaging, as part of Australia's anti-tobacco measures - labelled the toughest in the world.
Under this law, logos and brand colours are removed and replaced by graphic health warnings and shocking images of sick babies, and diseased feet, eyeballs and lungs. The cigarette brands are printed in identical small font on the front and top of cartons.
Already, shopkeepers are complaining that they find it almost impossible to tell the brands apart.
Mr Xia, who owns a 7-Eleven store just outside Sydney's Chinatown, said the new "disgusting" packaging was a headache for shop staff. "It is very hard to find the brands that people are looking for," he told The Straits Times.
Mr Xia said customers disliked the new warnings on the cigarette packs, but he did not think it would reduce smoking levels. "People still smoke - only now, they also complain," he said.
"Nothing will stop them from smoking. But it is hard at night-time. People come from the pub and they see these packets and they get irritated."
The new packets have been rolled out since last month and will become mandatory from Dec 1.
The measures have been tipped to trigger an "olive revolution", with similar measures being considered in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, China, France, India, South Africa, Norway and Uruguay.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said the measures would stop cigarette packets from functioning as "mobile billboards".
Studies have shown that people, particularly those who are younger, are less likely to be attracted to smoking when the packets are not shiny or colourful.
"We think this change is one that will have a long-term impact, particularly in putting off new smokers and young smokers," Ms Roxon told Sky News earlier this year. "I've never made any pretence that I think this will stop existing smokers. It might make them think again, but the truth is, it's about not... making it glamorous for young new smokers in particular."
Tobacco giants, fearing other countries will follow Australia's lead, have launched various legal battles against the measures.
In August, Australia's High Court dismissed a challenge by British American Tobacco, Philip Morris, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco, which claimed that the laws unlawfully extinguished the value of their trademarks.
But tobacco companies claim that the new measures benefit the black market and that illegal tobacco sales have tripled in Australia in the past year.
The government has disputed the claims and said tougher sentences and potential imprisonment for smugglers will help combat the trade in illegal tobacco.
For now, however, the changes are creating a big headache for shopkeepers struggling to read the small writing on the packets.
Mr Othman Moussa, who has run a tobacco shop in Sydney's Darling Harbour for the past 24 years, said he knows the layout of his cigarette shelf and can still find the different brands.
But he said if he takes on new staff "it will be a real mess".
"The main problem for me now is that it is very hard to sort out the deliveries," he told The Straits Times. "It takes three or four hours to read each brand and separate them - it used to take 10 minutes."
Indeed, one of the country's main trucking companies, Linfox, is reportedly renegotiating its delivery contracts because the new packets are making it slower and more expensive to supply retailers.
Mr Moussa said he has not seen a drop-off in customers, but acknowledges that they tend to walk away less satisfied.
"My business is going well," he said. "I don't see any impact - but people complain about the bad pictures."