The major tobacco companies are about to launch a major offensive against the federal government’s plan to introduce plain packaging for Pall Mall and other cigarettes. The plan is the latest in a long line of measures attempting to curb smoking rates in Australia, following advertising and other bans, explicit health warnings on packets and TV campaigns.

And, recently, legislation was enacted in Victoria forcing retailers to remove their cigarettes from open display.

With commercial tobacco no longer grown in Australia, British American Tobacco Australia has warned that the government’s plan could invite a flood of illegal smuggled tobacco, or ‘chop chop’ from overseas.

This week, BATA chief executive David Crow said that, if producers were forced to use plain packaging on their products, they could cut prices and still remain profitable.

The veiled threat here is that cheaper legal cigarettes could bring a greater usage and, worse, a bigger take-up of the habit by more and more young people.

Anti-smoking lobbyists such as Cancer Council chief executive officer Professor Ian Olver and Quit executive director Fiona Sharkie called for the government to raise the taxes on tobacco products to make up the shortfall, should prices be cut.

While this may be tempting for a federal government trying to improve its bottom line, Health Minister Nicola Roxon said that there were no plans to do so at this stage. In 2009-10, according to a Deloitte report, the government’s share of tobacco revenue was a tidy $5.92 billion, or about 2.2 per cent of total national tax revenue.

But what the government may lose on the swings, it could pick up on the roundabout. If the plan is successful, it would lead to fewer smoking-related diseases, thus freeing up money to deal with other serious national health issues such as the obesity epidemic.

But the plan is not yet over the line. With the federal opposition leader still to offer full commitment, its future could rest with the three independent members.

The government and the public must resist this ill-advised campaign of spin and scare-mongering from the tobacco industry. According to Deloitte, 18 per cent of Australians smoke tobacco on a daily basis.

Anything that can be done to reduce this number further must be done. It’s irrefutable that cigarettes are bad for the health of the individual and of the nation.