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Plain cigarette packaging works: study

Plain packaging on tobacco products is associated with lower smoking appeal, greater support for the policy and a higher…

Plain packaging on tobacco products is associated with lower smoking appeal, greater support for the policy and a higher urgency to quit among adult smokers, a new study has found.

Since last year, cigarettes in Australia are sold in unbranded packets that feature a larger graphic health warning with new information messages and confronting images. AAP Image/Department of Health and Ageing

The study, conducted by Victorian researchers and published in the journal BMJ Open, is the first to examine how plain packaging affects smokers thoughts in practice following the roll-out of plain packaging laws in Australia in late 2012. Previous studies have only looked at simulated plain packs.

Australia was the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging laws. The UK had considered following suit but has reportedly shelved plans to do so.

The researchers surveyed 536 cigarette smokers with a usual brand, of whom 72.3% were smoking from a plain pack and 27.7% were smoking from a branded pack. The participants were based in Victoria and surveyed by phone between November 1 and December 3 2012.

“Compared with branded pack smokers, those smoking from plain packs perceived their cigarettes to be lower in quality, tended to perceive their cigarettes as less satisfying than a year ago, were more likely to have thought about quitting at least once a day in the past week and to rate quitting as a higher priority in their lives. Plain pack smokers were more likely to support the policy than branded pack smokers,” the researchers said in their paper.

“Given that Australia is the first nation to implement plain packaging, our study provides an early investigation of its actual effects on smokers in a market where plain packs are available to all.”

At the time the survey was conducted, some smokers were still able to purchase branded packs. The researchers acknowledged that “those less interested in quitting may have been more likely to avoid the plain packs” but said they adjusted their results to account for this factor.

No surprise

Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney and a vocal proponent of plain packaging laws, said “every consumer goods manufacturer knows that packaging and price are front and centre of the appeal of products.”

“Think of your own behaviour when you stand facing a wall of different wine within your price range and why you select the bottle you do. Massive research goes into maximising the appeal of the look of cigarette packs, like all products. They cue expectations and tobacco industry internal research has long shown that many smokers cannot discern even their own brand in blinded tests,” he said.

“So it is no surprise that our plain packaging is producing negative findings for the tobacco industry. They would have known this was coming.”

Paul Harrison, a Senior lecturer at Deakin University’s Graduate School of Business who has previously written on the topic of plain packaging, said the new research “presents itself as a good study.”

“In terms of findings, it’s something I would have predicted as well. The one thing I have said previously [is that] these kind of changes will not see dramatic instant change in behaviour,” he said,

“We will see incremental shifts in it being easier to not be a smoker than it is to be a smoker. And these are the aims of all these types of programs.”

Dr Harrison said he expected the tobacco industry to dispute the study’s findings.

“I think what we will see in practice is the cigarette lobby, including all the companies funded by cigarette companies, who will say things like: it’s a small sample, they will say no dramatic changes, they will say it is not effective,” he said.

“In terms of it being used in practice, I think the health authorities can feel the change to plain packs is a good step and, internationally, legislatures and governments that are interested in the health of the community should look at the study and say this is something worth doing.”

Join the conversation

17 Comments sorted by

  1. Henry Verberne

    Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

    This is encouraging although not unexpected. I hope we will see plain packaging laws being more widely adopted around the world.

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  2. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

    As someone who is heavily criticising Labor on many issues I want to say that just as John Howard deserves credit for his gun control laws Labor deserve praise for leading the world with this policy.

    Now I just wish that Victorian Labor and Liberal would change their minds and ban smoking at outdoor dining locations. The state Greens put up legislation in the upper house calling for this - but both major parties voted against it.

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    1. Gordon Comisari

      Resort Manager

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      It is always good to see some splendid (Greens) ideas concocted in a rarefied environment of no government responsibilty and obligation in an "ideal" world that simply does not exist. Wishful thinking does not make things happen.
      Please do not take it the wrong way but when all of a sudden confronted with realism it can be a bit of a shock to the system.
      By all means keep on dreaming!

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    2. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Gordon Comisari

      Sorry - but what 'splendid (Greens) idea' are you talking about?

      Plain package for cigarettes was strongly supported by the Greens, but I'll give Labor most of the credit. And I think the Liberals voted for this as well.

      And if you are talking about banning smoking in outdoor dining areas I believe that this is already the law in some Australian states, and this could only have happened if this was voted for by the major party in power in that state.

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    3. Peter West

      CEO at Property

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      John Howard deserves no credit for his knee-jerk reaction. It was one of the worst things he ever did. Basically, he made legitimate gun-ownership more onerous, but at the same time there is a flood of guns on the black market and a huge increase in gun crime.
      I heard one of the Greens saying there should be more strict laws on gun ownership because of the amount of gun crime! This does not come from legitimate licensed owners.
      Every totalitarian regime has banned private gun ownership, retaining…

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    4. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Peter West

      Yes - we have gone back to where the expertise of climate change denial came from, the battle to regulate smoking.

      And yes - you did read correctly - someone has just posted that smoking has some health benefits.

      As with Seb, I don't believe we are hearing a personal opinion - I think this is tobacco company paid for spin. I can't prove it, but if you think Seb is genuine, I can also offer you great deals on some online casinos ....

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  3. Dave Roarty

    Retired, once was young.....

    It will be interesting to see if Dr Harrison's prediction proves correct. I suspect they wont argue as they are running court cases claiming the law impacts their business.

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    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Dave Roarty

      A representative of a tobacco company was given good coverage on the ABC TV News tonight, and he disputed the findings based on the small sample size :)

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  4. Seb

    logged in via Twitter

    I have no intimate knowledge of this study, but packaging is a much less important part in smoking than these fellows seem to think or imply. In the part of Canada I live in, there is a very high tax on cigarettes and tobacco products, however, local natives (Or what many around the world would call "North American Indians") living on semi autonomous and self-policed reserves have a booming business selling cheap, unbranded cigarettes sold in big 200 cigarette ziplock bags.

    These are unbranded…

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    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Seb

      Seb - I love the way you declare the research a waste of money because you disagree with the result.

      Surely if we introduce something as 'draconian' as our cigarette packaging laws we want to know whether or not it is effective?

      If research showed that it made no difference then the industry could use this research to lobby for a return to the old laws.

      I was thinking that with the huge amount of posts pushing the views of the IPA at The Conversation that it was surprising that we hadn't…

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    2. shuningbian

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Seb

      These situations are not comparable. These unbranded cigarettes you speak off are also massively discounted. Any effect of plain packaging is swamped by the effect of being sold at a huge discount.

      The ad hominem attack on the motivation and integrity of researchers is uncalled for and undermines your arguments.

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    3. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Seb

      Seb's post brings to our attention the effect that plain packaging is likely to have on the take up of smoking - in fact I would guess that this is where it is most likely to have a big impact.

      As the research was done on current smokers, the effect on potential new smokers wasn't mentioned.

      I find it amusing that it is a post from the tobacco lobby that bought my attention to the fact that we should support plain packaging because it makes smoking less attractive to the young.

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    4. Andrew Webster

      Medic

      In reply to Seb

      You may be interested in this paper.

      http://ntr.oxfordjournals.org/content/15/3/708.full.pdf

      Effect of graphic Cigarette Warning labels on smoking Behavior: evidence from the Canadian experience

      Nicotine & Tobacco Research, volume 15, number 3 (March 2013)

      Results: We found that graphic warnings had a statistically significant effect on smoking prevalence and quit attempts. In par- ticular, the warnings decreased the odds of being a smoker (odds ratio [OR] = 0.875; 95% CI = 0.821–0.932) and increased the odds of making a quit attempt (OR = 1.330, CI = 1.187–1.490).

      Similar results were obtained when we allowed for more time for the warnings to appear in retail outlets.

      Conclusion: This study adds to the growing body of evidence on the effectiveness of graphic warnings. Our findings suggest that warnings had a significant effect on smoking prevalence and quit attempts in Canada.

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  5. R. Ambrose Raven

    none

    Beware the proposed "investor-state" arbitrator clause in the proposed Trans-Pacific (Trade) – ha ha – "Partnership". Australia's current rejection of it is apparently the key difference between Australia and the other participants.

    In its trade policy statement, the then Gillard government noted that it has previously sought such clauses "at the behest of Australian businesses" but promises that it will "discontinue this practice". It has also said it doesn’t support greater rights for foreign…

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  6. Peter West

    CEO at Property

    Just another nanny state regulation, that points up the fact that government has no respect for private property and legitimate legal rights.
    These companies had billions in value tied up in their branding, now rendered worthless with no compensation.
    So it is now a precedent that private property can be rendered null and void by government intervention.
    Just another nail in the coffin of freedom and private enterprise.

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    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Peter West

      In the debate about ending slavery it is clear where Peter West would sit - how dare a government not respect private property and legitimate legal rights.

      The right-wing lunacy here sometimes makes me feel sick.

      And I'll note that the view of Peter West is not shared by Green, Labor NOR LIBERAL - in fact the only organisation I can think of that says this in public is the IPA.

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