You might not notice it just yet, but the UK has become the latest country to introduce plain, standardised packaging of cigarettes, along with Australia and France.
The switch follows a landmark ‘yes’ vote in the House of Commons just over a year ago that saw MPs from all parties take a stand against tobacco marketing.
And following a final failed legal challenge, tobacco companies are no longer allowed to manufacture glitzy packs that evidence shows act as a ‘silent salesman’ to children. Here’s how packs will change:
This will be vital in helping protect children from being attracted to start smoking – and the evidence proves it.
It’s also hugely popular. Nearly three quarters of the public supported standard packs before they were made law:
So, after a journey spanning four years, we’re delighted they’re finally here. But what are standard packs? And what else is changing in tobacco marketing?
The colour and the shape
You might expect ‘plain’ packs to be white – but they won’t be. Instead, they’ll be a drab brown colour, with a matte finish.
This is thanks to research from Australia, which found that dark brown colours were the most effective in lowering cigarettes’ appeal, and led people to use words like ‘dirty’, ‘tar’ or ‘death’ when describing them.
But it’s not just the colour that’s changing. Until now, cigarette packs could be sold in different shapes and sizes, with different ways of opening that could mimic boxes of matches or lighters. And gone are the days of the thin ‘lipstick’ or ‘perfume’ packs (although slim cigarettes are still available to buy).
Pack design is important. Research shows these designs both attract young people to cigarettes, and mislead them about their damaging effects. Opening a pack sideways, for example, means the size of the health warning on the front becomes relatively smaller.
And cunning design is no accident. The tobacco industry has long been working out how to modify the shape, size and opening of packs to influence whether people view cigarettes as risky or appealing.
So when will plain packs actually hit the shelves?
For the time being, tobacco companies will be allowed to sell cigarette they’ve already made and packaged, but any made after today will have to conform to the new rules. And by May 2017, all packs on the shelves will have to meet these standards too.
So while standard packs won’t appear overnight, they’ll gradually appear on the shelves over the coming months.
And this can’t come soon enough as Rosa, one of our Cancer Campaigns Ambassadors – who led the charge to show MPs why standard packs were vital – explains:
Knowing that I had helped future generations of children and young people have one less reason to start smoking makes me feel grateful. I am thankful that my children and grandchildren are not exposed to the same marketing tactics that resulted in me developing a tobacco addiction and then cancer
Our Ambassadors are also helping to celebrate through a Twitter thunderclap, which you can join here.
More than just packaging – the Tobacco Products Directive
But the drab overhaul of packs is just one of a number of changes being introduced. A new EU law – called the Tobacco Products Directive – will also see a number of other measures introduced from today. These include:
1. Bigger health warnings on packs
It was more than 20 years after Sir Richard Doll first linked smoking and lung cancer that health warnings started appearing on cigarettes, in 1971. And even that was a voluntary agreement between the Government and the tobacco industry.
It took 20 more years before, in 1991, the EU brought in the first legally required warning labels, and made them larger in 2003 to cover a third of the pack. And it wasn’t until 2008 that graphic pictures on packs were required.
Now those health warnings will be boosted to cover up to 65% of both the front and back of a pack.
Standard packs could also be important here too, as research with schoolchildren found the drab alternatives increased visual attention to health warnings and away from branding.
2. Laying low the ‘low tar cigarette’ myth
Cigarette packs will also no longer have warnings on the amount of tar and nicotine they contain.
While that might seem odd, the logic is very clear: whether or not a cigarette is ‘normal’ or ‘low-tar’, smokers still ingest the same levels of tar and nicotine when they smoke.
This is because ‘low tar’ cigarettes have perforations on the filter, which can lead to a lower tar yield score when tested by a machine.
But in reality, smokers cover these perforations with their fingers, lips, or saliva, meaning that the damage caused by a ‘low tar’ cigarette is no different from a regular one.
3. No more ‘tasty’ cigarettes
The new EU law will also see a ban on menthol and flavoured cigarettes introduced by 2020, and flavour capsules in cigarette filters will be banned this year. This is a great move to limit a growing and uniquely harmful area of the tobacco industry’s product range.
4. Changes to how e-cigarettes are regulated
There are also changes ahead for manufacturers of e-cigarettes. As well as changes affecting the size of tanks and strength of nicotine-containing liquids, e-cigarette manufacturers will have to decide whether to apply for them to be regulated as either a consumer product or a medicinal one, with different marketing restrictions on each.
If companies choose to make a claim that their e-cigarette helps smokers quit, they will have to apply for a medicines’ licence – but this will exempt them from certain regulations on strength and marketing.
These changes may spark considerable debate, and it’s essential that we monitor how they affect e-cigarette use. To make sure policy decisions around e-cigarettes continue to be evidence-based, and allow the devices to reach their potential to help smokers quit, we need more research.
That’s why as well as providing information, we’ve set up an e-cigarette research forum with Public Health England, and we’re part-funding a study across the UK to understand what these changes to e-cigarette marketing will mean. You can find more about its aims here.
Digging their heels in
These changes have been a long time coming and, overall, we think they’ll ultimately have a positive impact on smoking rates. But while standard packs and a number of the new EU measures are great news, not everyone was so keen to protect the health of our children.
In spite of restrictions on how they influence public health policy, the tobacco industry fought tooth and nail to prevent them being introduced.
Throughout the debate on standard packs, it provided an onslaught of misinformation. When the Government consulted on standard packs, the industry submitted evidence of poor quality, talked up concerns about smuggling and ‘brand-switching’, and suggested there’s no evidence standard packs will work, all of which run contrary to the evidence base.
And research has shown the Tobacco Products Directive was one of the most lobbied pieces of legislation in EU history.
After it didn’t get its way, the tobacco industry packed the legislation in their barristers’ briefcases, and marched it to court.
Although it’s tried to overturn standard packs and the Tobacco Products Directive through spurious legal challenges – wasting UK taxpayers’ money in the process – we’re happy to report it has been defeated.
We believe it’s utterly shameful that the tobacco industry has spent so much time, effort and money trying to block measures that will help prevent cancers in the future. It makes this quote from a World Health Organisation (WHO) Committee of Experts particularly poignant:
Tobacco use is unlike other threats to public health. Infectious diseases do not employ multinational public relations firms. There are no front groups to promote the spread of cholera. Mosquitos have no lobbyists
But standard packs are here, and that’s great news
These changes – particularly to tobacco packaging – are historic in the UK, and their impact cannot be overstated. Finally, we’ll see cigarettes for what they really are – a vehicle for an early grave that is entirely avoidable.
So out goes the glitzy, gift-wrapped cigarette pack, and in comes a gift to protect future generations from cancer.
And today we can celebrate that.
Dan Hunt is a policy advisor at Cancer Research UK