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Studies are conclusive: plain packaging of tobacco works

An expert commentary on the global tobacco control treaty, the WHO FCTC

Tobacco use kills nearly six million people every year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.1 In response to this pandemic, WHO developed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), a comprehensive treaty with 180 Parties.2

The WHO FCTC provides various support tools for countries to develop effective tobacco control policies, such as high taxes on tobacco, advertising regulations and tobacco warnings.

The present article focuses on plain packaging of tobacco, proposed in Articles 11 and 13 of the FCTC, to eliminate the use of tobacco packaging as a marketing tool. Plain packaging means that the brand name is printed in a standardized font and typeface, and trademarks (including logos or any decorative elements) are prohibited. The pack must use unattractive colours and contain no text other than health warnings and information required by law (see photo).

3 more countries

Australia adopted plain packaging in 2012; Ireland, Great Britain and France will implement it in 2016; and New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Turkey, and Canada are considering its implementation.

While plain packaging is increasingly gaining the support of governments, the tobacco industry has been lobbying hard to curb its development: actions include a lawsuit filed against Australia and the threat of legal proceedings for other countries planning to introduce it; the launch of anti-plain-pack campaigns and Internet sites, and scaremongering about a rise in counterfeiting and contraband. Such hostility begs the question of why the tobacco industry is so opposed to plain packaging if it claims that it is inefficient or useless.

“Clearly favourable”

An analysis of the research carried out since the early 1990s on the efficiency of plain packaging makes it easier to understand these hostile reactions: it has been proven that plain packs are clearly favourable for public health.

The first benefit is for adolescents: compared with the “branded” pack, the plain pack is less appealing and diminishes the incentive to start smoking. Plain packaging reduces the packet’s attractiveness and the positive image of the smoker, which ultimately diminishes the appeal of smoking. (Minors consider plain packs to be uglier, bland and boring).

Furthermore, the plain pack also has an impact on smokers. Australian smokers who were questioned following the introduction of the plain pack in 2012 said that they were more motived to stop smoking, had made more frequent attempts to stop smoking, and had put out an unfinished cigarette more often (compared to the period in which “branded” packs were used). They also made more telephone calls to the smoking cessation helpline (which experienced a 78 percent increase in calls during and after plain pack implementation) and had the impression that the cigarettes were of lower quality and did not taste as good.

Similar findings elsewhere

Similar findings have been highlighted in studies on perceptions of plain packaging conducted in other countries, including Great Britain, France and New Zealand.<

Plain packs also prevent consumer misinformation. The tobacco industry uses colour codes (light blue, white) to evoke the “mildness” of cigarettes and places reassuring text on the packaging (“100% tobacco”, “0 additives”, “organic”, etc.). This misleads individuals into thinking that harmful effects can differ according to the product, which in turn encourages them to carry on smoking certain brands of cigarettes instead of others. Plain packaging eliminates these false beliefs.

Another benefit of the plain pack is that it increases the impact of tobacco packaging health warning messages. On “branded” packages, these health messages are thwarted by marketing stimuli (logos, colour, images, etc.) that reduce their visibility, credibility and impact on the desire to stop smoking.

‘Denormalize’ smoking

Finally, the Australian experience shows that plain packs reduce the visibility of tobacco products and contribute to denormalizing smoking: given the ugliness of the packaging, smokers are less likely to take out their packet of cigarettes in front of family, children and friends.

To conclude, the numerous published studies on plain packs show that they are effective. Additionally, tobacco industry internal reports and documents have highlighted the importance that packaging and product play in increasing and maintaining market share:3 if tobacco companies no longer have control over their packaging, then they lose an essential means of communication, particularly in countries where advertising is prohibited or limited in the media. To defend this communication space, they have adopted the mantra that the plain pack is ineffective.

However, the Australian experience contradicts their arguments: when the country implemented plain packs, in combination with other measures (large warnings, a rise in the price of tobacco products), the number of smokers dropped and smoking by young people declined.4

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