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Tobacco control – will plain packaging work?

Australia is the first country in the world to introduce plain packaged cigarettes. But will a lack of branding deter people from smoking?

Given the current climate on tobacco control in Australia, it’s hard to think that prior to the 1970s cigarette advertising was legal and widespread.

Since then, much has changed: tobacco advertising is banned from popular culture products (magazines, billboards, and television commercials), and in its place are stark messages that warn of the dangerous health effects of smoking.

Now, with the legislation to mandate plain packaging of tobacco products, cigarette branding is being thrown out of the picture. But how effective will it be in warding people off cigarettes?

The impact of cigarette pack branding

As of December last year, under the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011, all cigarettes must be packaged in a plain, logo-free format, with graphic health warnings and warnings about age restrictions on tobacco salesi. No brand colours are permitted and brand names can only be presented using a single font style. There are three main reasons for introducing this legislationii:

1. To increase the visibility and impact of health warning messages
2. To reduce the ability for branded packaging to undermine the dangers of smoking
3. To reduce the attractiveness of the tobacco products to young non-smokers

This measure came about from research that suggested colour and object placement in an image can alter an individual’s emotional response to a particular productiii. A recent experimental study conducted by the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer found a strong link between design elements on branded cigarette packs and an individual’s appeal to certain cigarette brandsiv. Also, a study analysing the effect of plain packages on the perception of cigarette health warnings – conducted at the University of Otago, New Zealand – found that health warnings on plain packages achieved greater recall rates in comparison to brand packsv.

A hopeful future

Currently, there is no quantifiable evidence to suggest that plain packaged cigarettes are perturbing smokersvi. However there have been anecdotal reports from smokers saying the taste of tobacco has changedvii, and that plain packaged cigarettes taste worse than branded onesviii. While the plain packaging legislation was initially aimed at deterring non-smokers from taking up smoking,

Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek is hopeful that the initiative will also discourage current smokers from continuingvii.

Tobacco control experts around the world predict that within two years of plain packaged cigarettes being introduced, the percentage of adult smokers would be reduced by 1% and the percentage of children trying to smoke by 3%ix. Along with elaborate, educational anti-smoking campaigns and support for quitters, the plain packaging initiative could hopefully see a reduction in deaths caused by smoking.

The benefits of quitting

Smoking tobacco is the largest cause of preventable illnesses (heart diseases, lung cancer, and atherosclerosis) in Australiax, affecting smokers and non-smokersxi. There are many benefits to quitting smoking; improving a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. Within days of not smoking, a person’s sense of taste and smell improves significantly. And within a month, blood pressure levels return to normal and the immune system begins to pick itself up againxii. Furthermore, the risk of exposing family members and friends to second-hand smoke is minimised.

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