The idea that tobacco should be sold in plain packs without branding – but crucially with large health warnings – was suggested years ago by experts in reducing smoking. It’s no surprise that the tobacco industry has been absolutely determined in its opposition – one industry insider said [pdf]: “we don’t want to see plain packaging introduced anywhere regardless of the size and importance of the market.”
So far they’ve had a lot of success in fighting every attempt to introduce plain packs, although we’re delighted that next year Australia may become the first country in the world to bring it in.
That means that if we want to learn more about the impact of plain packaging, we can’t simply look at a country which has already taken that step. But one of Cancer Research UK’s tobacco experts, Dr Crawford Moodie, has been studying what happens in the real world when young smokers use non-branded packs.
In a recent study, published in September in the journal Tobacco Control, his research group, based at the University of Stirling, looked at what happened when nearly 50 young adult smokers smoked cigarettes in non-branded cigarette packs in normal everyday situations for two weeks.
Dr Moodie’s team then compared the reaction to this packaging with the reactions to using regular packs for two weeks, and found that smokers rated plainly wrapped cigarettes negatively against the original packs.
They took out the cigarettes from their pocket or bag less often, handed them out less frequently and often hid the pack from others, compared with their counterparts with branded packs.
By itself, this study is of course not a definitive answer on the issue – it’s a small study and the researchers are working on a larger scale version. But when we put this evidence together with the large number of other studies showing plain tobacco packs are less attractive to young people, we start to see why cigarette packaging is so important.
We can never do a randomised control trial for plain packaging as we would for a new drug – it wouldn’t be ethical. But as we put together different pieces of evidence, the picture comes into ever-sharper focus.
Packs are designed to be attractive and communicate the ‘personality’ of a cigarette brand. But in reality, the ‘personality’ of a cigarette is closer to that of a cold-hearted killer. Let’s not forget what the end point of this clever marketing is – it’s to encourage people to do something that increases their risk of cancer, heart disease, strokes, impotence, cataracts and death for half of all long term users.
That’s not something a tobacco company would be very keen to show the public on a cigarette pack.
When hundreds of thousands of young people start smoking each year, this is an urgent problem.
The need for action is clear.
Robin Hewings is Cancer Research UK’s tobacco control policy manager
Moodie, C., Mackintosh, A., Hastings, G., & Ford, A. (2011). Young adult smokers’ perceptions of plain packaging: a pilot naturalistic study Tobacco Control, 20 (5), 367-373 DOI: 10.1136/tc.2011.042911