Together we will beat cancer

Cancer campaigners

We’ve been campaigning to put tobacco in plain packs

Over the next couple of days, MPs in Westminster will be opening their mail to find a range of shiny, rectangular boxes, colourful and slickly designed to maximise the appeal of their contents.

Like all packaging of branded products – from washing powder to chocolate bars – the boxes act as a silent salesman, enticing people to make a purchase.

But unlike most branded products, the boxes politicians are receiving this week are designed to market and sell a uniquely deadly product: cigarettes.

Cigarettes aren’t something MPs would usually get in the post – at least we hope not – and they’re certainly not products we’ve ever mailed out before. But yes, we did send these packages.

The money to fund this didn’t come from our research funding – it was paid for by a personal donation from a supporter wanting to support our anti-tobacco campaign.

It’s an extremely unusual thing for a cancer charity to do, and it’s not something we’ve done lightly. But tobacco is exceptional in the seriousness of its impact on health. Exceptional adversaries warrant exceptional actions.

Packaging attracts customers

We’ve sent MPs the packets to hammer home the message of our recent campaign – The Answer Is Plain (now renamed ‘Setting The Standard’). We’ve been calling on the government to remove one of the last marketing tools used to sell cigarettes – the packet itself.

Tobacco has already been deemed as too dangerous to allow it to be freely marketed and sold. For example, cigarettes haven’t been advertised on UK TVs since 1965, and a ban on billboard and print advertising was rolled out in 2003.

This is because half of all long-term smokers will die from their addiction. And, with a dying customer base, tobacco companies are desperate to attract new smokers. More often than not, these new customers are children. More than eight out of ten smokers start before they turn 19, and a shocking 157,000 children take up smoking every year.

The bleak fact is that these children are the customers tobacco companies need to sustain their colossal profits. Removing branding from cigarette packaging won’t solve this significant problem overnight, but it will give children one less reason to start smoking.

Research has shown that plain, standardised packs make smoking less attractive to young people and improve the effectiveness of the health warnings on packs.

It’s hard to argue that children don’t find tobacco packaging appealing. Watch the video below to see how children react – unprompted and unscripted – to tobacco packaging. These are honest responses and provide strong motivation to remove all branding from cigarettes and cigarette packs.

A worthwhile tactic

When we’ve shown MPs different packs available from local shops across the UK, we find they’re often surprised by the glamorous and innovative pack designs and extent of the targeting at young women in particular. This is especially the case for those MPs who have never smoked or haven’t smoked for a while.

And after speaking to colleagues in Australia, where standardised packs were introduced in December 2012, they told us that physically showing politicians new-generation cigarette packs was hugely influential in their successful campaign. So we believe this is an important step worth taking.

It’s important to point out that the packs were paid for by a generous personal donation from Kevin Craig. Kevin is managing director of the public affairs company PLMR, and he decided to personally support Cancer Research UK because he believes this is a critical point in trying to help legislators understand that the proposed changes to packaging will save lives.

Kevin’s mother died of cancer in 2012 and he is a strong supporter of cancer research and care charities.

All the cigarettes except for two were taken out from each pack and destroyed. We’ve left the two cigarettes in each pack to show that the cigarette itself is often branded with designs and patterns.

We’ve also sent a mock-up of what the standardised packs would look like – large picture health warnings front and back, standard font on all packs and in a dull green colour:

Plain pack

Compare the packs available in shops now to the type of packaging we’d like to see, and judge for yourself. Which packs do you find less appealing?

Tobacco packs

Yes it’s an unusual and bold tactic for a cancer charity to send cigarette packaging to politicians.

The public consultation on the future of tobacco packaging closed in August 2012. With so many children starting to smoke every year in the UK, action remains urgent.

We’re urging the government to act now. They must make the right decision to protect children from tobacco marketing. This would then allow politicians make one of the most important public health decisions of their lives.

If our tactic helps them make the right decision, then it’s worth it.

To show your support and sign our petition visit



Robin Hewings February 21, 2013

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments Bridgit.

As you say, it’s easy for people to ignore text warnings so we want standardised packs to have large picture warnings on the front and back of the pack to highlight the very real dangers of smoking. The pictures should be refreshed regularly to keep smokers’ attention. We really like your idea about having people’s stories in the warnings – this has been done very effectively in Australia and Canada.

You’re right that anti-smoking ads on television are effective. A recent review of the evidence by leading tobacco researchers:

…underlined this. There have been adverts in England in the New Year – but more needs to be done in other parts of the UK.

Thanks again for commenting.

Robin Hewings
Tobacco Policy Manager
Cancer Research UK

Bridgit Potter February 15, 2013

This is a great idea and I fully support standardized packs. This would deter the interest of young children who are easily intrigued by bright colors and flashy things. I know that television and billboard advertisements have been eliminated in the UK. However another concern of mine is the advertisements which display attractive models smoking. Even though they are not intentionally marketing cigarettes this inadvertently relays the message that smoking is a cool thing to do. Movies and television that have the main actors/actresses smoking could potentially send the same message. The same effect could also result from exposed pictures of idolized celebrities who are seen smoking. This carries the same concept as commercials with beautiful thin models eating food with a repulsive nutritional content. Children watch and imitate the actions of those they find intriguing. This could be anyone I listed above, a stranger at the park or a family member. In my opinion, making the dangers of smoking a well-known and undeniable fact through widespread education is the backbone of the solution to this problem. It is in the human nature to seclude thoughts of devastating things such as cancer to only happen to “other” people. Even though research shows that half of smokers will die from the habit, people still want to believe they will not be included in that half. Simply reading the warning labels on a cigarette pack is not efficient enough to indicate the severity of the risk. I feel like we have developed an ability to ignore written warnings due to the fact that we see long list of warnings on everyday items including medications. Maybe the risk could be conveyed more powerfully through visual images of emphysema and lung cancer sufferers, accompanied by their stories detailing the negative effects on their quality of life. Maybe these visual images could be added to the packs themselves and the stories added as an insert. Also an increase in the number of anti-smoking ads played on television that includes real life sufferers could prove beneficial.I think personifying the risk will make their presence a reality for all current and potential smokers.