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Australia at odds with cigarette makers over plain packaging impact

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian laws requiring cigarettes to be sold in drab olive-green packets with graphic health warnings are making smokers think more about quitting, a study has shown, but cigarette makers say they have seen little impact on sales.

Australia introduced the world's toughest laws on plain packaging late last year and other countries, including New Zealand and Ireland, plan to follow.

Britain said this month it was delaying plans to ban company branding on cigarette packets because it wanted to first see the impact of Australia's measures.

A study of 500 Australian smokers showed most believed their cigarettes were less satisfying and of lower quality than a year ago, with most also thinking more about quitting.

The British Medical Journal will publish the results of the study, commissioned by the Cancer Society of Victoria, on Tuesday.

"Smokers have been telling us that our new plain packaging and larger graphic health warnings are putting them off," health minister Tanya Plibersek said.

"And while tobacco companies haven't changed the formula of their products, we've had feedback from smokers saying their cigarettes taste worse since the government's required packaging to be plain."

But British & American Tobacco PLC said that while it was still early days, its research showed no deviation in the steady decline in smokers seen over the past 10 years.

"There has been no noticeable impact on legal tobacco sales in the first six months due to plain packaging, as smokers are still purchasing cigarettes just as they were before it was introduced," BAT spokesman Scott McIntyre said in a statement.

Neither the government nor BAT provided data on smoker numbers. There are around 3 million Australian smokers, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates.

The World Health Organization has said plain packaging would increase the impact of health warnings, stop consumers thinking that some products were less harmful and make tobacco products less attractive.

Tobacco control advocates say tobacco companies are aggressively trying to stymie controls, chiefly through legal action by four countries at the World Trade Organization, in hopes of overturning the Australian law.

The WTO challenge by Ukraine, Cuba, Honduras and the Dominican Republic could take a year or more to reach a conclusion, but it has not yet started, since the complainants have yet to trigger the litigation phase of the trade dispute, and have no obligation to do so.

(Reporting by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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