Keep It Simple: Introducing plain cigarette packaging

6 March 2015 (Last Updated March 6th, 2015 10:20)

Branding-free tobacco packaging has been a hot topic for the government, health ministers, retailers and cigarette companies. Sonia Sharma investigates how plain packaging could change the face of smoking

Keep It Simple: Introducing plain cigarette packaging

Issue 17

Standardising the appearance of cigarette packaging has been an area of discussion that causes debate and in 2012 the UK government undertook a public consultation on this issue. In April 2014 the UK government decided to introduce plain packaging although at the time of publication plain packaging has still not been fully introduced.

Homogenous packaging states to have several aims. The main reasons are to reduce the appeal of cigarettes, limit design features that may be misleading about the dangers of smoking and increase the prominence of health warnings that may otherwise be overlooked by consumers.

Nevertheless opposition from the tobacco industry from companies such as British American Tobacco, which owns brands such as Dunhill and Benson and Hedges, suggested that plain packaging would not work and could cause illicit trade. Will packaging fight to keep its identity or is going back to basics the way to go?

Crucial designs: reasons for generic packaging

At the heart of the debate to introduce plain packaging is whether or not the packaging itself has any effect on new consumers. John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham, believes that there are many reasons to implement generic packaging.

"There are lots of reasons why, current packaging encourages people to purchase the product and identify with the brand so it creates a brand identity, the branding and pack design distracts attention from the health warning itself," says Britton.

"It communicates false messages about the harm of the product by the use of colours or descriptors. It also creates a brand identity which allows cross marketing through use in the media for example or use online.

"It creates a brand identity that encourages some consumers to pay high prices for premium products which then cross subsidises cheaper products for poorer smokers. Branding is crucial."

The brand identity that Britton discusses is so pertinent that it may convince non-smokers to take up the habit. Speaking about homogenous packaging, he says: "It will have less impact to existing consumers because they have already come to terms with what they are doing but to potential new consumers and to people who have quit smoking you'll see the displays or see the designs interesting enough to smoke."

The power of the pack: a lasting impact on the younger generation

Since standardised packaging was introduced in Australia, data shows that tobacco consumption rose during the first full year of the new laws, with some believing this was due to a demand for cheaper cigarettes.

However a review by British medical doctor Sir Cyril Chantler said packs without branding or advertising would attract fewer young people to try smoking, although the effect would be 'modest.'

Britton also says plain packaging would be effective for the younger generation: "That's one of the things [health warnings] that current packaging detracts from and so yes I'd be quite sure that plain packaging, would increase, particularly children and other non-smokers, their awareness and information take in from the health warnings."

As time has progressed the data from Australia seems to be showing an encouraging trend. In the 15 months since the law was passed consumption of cigarettes and tobacco dropped 7.6% in the first quarter, Commonwealth Bank economists said in a research note, showing that the dire health warnings and graphic images could be working, even if the tobacco industry disagrees.

The Chantler report also found that "standardised packaging would serve to reduce the rate of children taking up smoking" and that it was "implausible that it would increase the consumption of tobacco."

Brightly coloured packs and luxurious designs allow the consumer to identify with the brand, whilst possibly recruiting new smokers. The influence of the branding is evident in younger age groups with data showing that more than 600 children aged 11 to 15 start to smoke every day.

Speaking about the health warnings of existing packs, Britton says: "They do have an influence but their impact is reduced by other information in the packaging and plain packaging therefore, removes that distraction."

Illicit dangers: a possible rise in counterfeit goods?

A worry in the plain packaging debate was the possible rise of counterfeiting which has been used as a counter argument. Britton says: "There's no evidence at all in a rise of counterfeiting, nor would you expect there to be any, because, first of all, current branded cigarette packs, to the naked eye, are extremely easy to forge and so that's not difficult, so you have to have covert security identifiers in there anyway and that's just the status quo."

He continues: "But much of the illicit trade in this country is of cheap, white cigarettes which are the brand that are made purely for exporters, they're not even recognised UK brands and smokers buy them anyway so I don't think there's any truth whatsoever in the suggestion they'd be more illicit."

This counter argument, Britton believes, comes back to brand identity: "The tobacco industry has to make a case for arguing against packaging and that's the hook they decided to follow but the real reason they're against plain packaging has got nothing to do with illicit supply and everything to do with brand promotion."

To tackle the problem on a smaller scale, reduction of tobacco sales could be hurried along by retailers.

"We need the point-of-sale display legislation, or implementation to happen, so small shops take their point-of-sale displays out of sight, next year I think it is, next April," says Britton.

"And we need plain packaging and then we need a form of licensing of retailers so that the number of retail outlets for cigarettes gradually reduces and, particularly, should reduce the number of retail outlets close to schools and other places where potential new smokers congregate."

Global measures: a universal approach

In the European Union, Ireland looks set to be the first member state to impose plain packaging and only the third country globally after Australia and New Zealand.

The UK government is being urged to move quickly with the decision of standardised packaging, as more than 600 medical experts recently criticised the public health minister's delay in pushing forward the legislation.

The road to simple and generic packaging appears to be anything but simple.

"It is now for government to make its decision on whether or not to go ahead," says Chantler.

The question now left to ask is how long will the road to generic cigarette packaging be. Chantler adds: "I recognise that there is a democratic process to go through, but for my own view I hope they do introduce it, and I hope they do it quickly."

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