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Is plain cigarette packaging just smoke and mirrors?

The Marlboro Man is one of the most iconic advertising images from the 20th century. The cowboy, depicted in some rustic setting, was single-handedly responsible for turning Marlboro’s annual sales from $5 billion a year to over $20 billion a year in the two years after the campaign was introduced. Since the success of that campaign, anti-smoking activists have tried several different ways to limit cigarette advertising. The latest salvo comes in the form of last week’s WHO statement on plain packaging, where they recommended plain packing as part of “comprehensive approach to tobacco control that includes large graphic health warnings and comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.” Plain packing standardizes how cigarettes are sold, keeping the picture health warnings, but making the brand names, pack size, colour scheme all identical to limit their appeal.

Australia and France are the only countries with an active plain packaging policy, while other countries are in various stages of implementing plain packaging as a potential strategy to discourage people from starting smoking. The House of Commons in the UK recently passed legislation by an overwhelming majority (367 to 113) to have standardized packaging for cigarettes, the Seanad in Ireland passed the law in March of last year. Canada has started examining whether this is a cost-effective approaching, and recently the Public Health Agency of Canada issued a public tender to determine the effectiveness of plain packaging legislation. However, while the rest of the world is moving towards plain packaging, the US noticeably lags behind. As this excellent piece by Julia Belluz states, there are many reasons for this, ranging from the First Amendment to intense lobbying efforts (and associated money) being poured in the US Congress from tobacco companies to prevent changes from occurring. As Belluz writes in her article:

The powerful tobacco lobby in the US has managed to delay federal regulation of the industry for decades. The Food and Drug Administration only gained authority over the tobacco industry in 2009 with the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

Unsurprisingly, the new legislation has led to considerable resistance from tobacco companies. In this CBC interview, a spokesperson for a tobacco company describes the legislation as “a public relations stunt by the federal government mainly orchestrated by a few but loud anti-tobacco lobbyists.” They also point to research (some funded by the tobacco industry) that shows no change in sales after the introduction of plain packaging legislation in Australia as an indication that plain packaging is a failure.

The tobacco industry also has very deep pockets, and has even taken governments to court over this legislation. Due to the Australia–Hong Kong Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (IPPA) of 1993 between Hong Kong and Australia, Philip Morris was able to sue the Australian government, under the guise that their profits were hurt by new regulatory measures. They’ve also engaged in astroturfing and other proxy battles to fight plain packaging legislation in the court of public opinion.

It remains to be seen how effective plain packaging is, and if this is a viable way to prevent people from taking up smoking. When we know that a large proportion of smokers want to quit, and on average only 2% are successful, the best intervention may be preventing people from starting to smoke in the first place.

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