Tobacco PR push runs out of puff as retailers play victim

The AAR campaign against plain cigarette packaging is funded by big tobacco. Jessica Rabbit/Flickr

Ever since Pope Urban VII spent part of his 13-day reign in 1590 threatening smokers with excommunication, smoking regulation has been controversial. And the response from tobacco supporters and companies has been just as contentious.

The current debate in Australia has the Federal Government’s proposed introduction of “plain packaging” for tobacco products being opposed by the Alliance of Australian Retailers (AAR).

The AAR is doing this through a series of advertisements claiming there is a lack of evidence that the introduction of plain packaging will have any effect on smoking rates.

The typical AAR member is a small businessperson in a newsagency, service station or independent retail outlet. He or she will often have everything they own tied up in the business.

They work longer hours for lower returns than ever before, and they are concerned about a threat to an important revenue stream, especially when the threat comes from further regulation.

In fact, Government compliance and reporting may be the only part of their business that is growing.

But is what they claim true?

Well, we know that companies like Coca Cola, Microsoft and Kodak are very active in protecting the copyright of their packaging designs.

Marketers have known for many years that repeated brand exposure, including packaging, increases the likelihood of purchase.

And of course, packaging is not just on display in the retail store, it is on display every time someone pulls out a packet of cigarettes, in any public or private environment.

While the link between packaging and cigarette consumption has been identified in numerous studies, the relationship is not strong enough to be able to say with certainty that one leads to the other.

This is because it is often difficult to disentangle the effects of advertising from other policy instruments like restrictions on purchase age, distribution, warning labels, education programs and taxes.

However, despite definitive proof about the packaging-smoking link, it is hard to see the retailers galvanising much public support for their campaign.

There are several reasons for this.

The first is that the link between smoking and a huge range of negative personal, social and national outcomes is irrefutable.

So any campaign opposing restrictions on exposure to cigarettes is unlikely to generate public support, especially since the emerging health threat is the impact of passive smoking on non-smokers.

It is common knowledge that the target for most cigarette marketing is young people. Anything that may reduce the access of young people to tobacco promotion is usually okay with the public at large.

And finally, there is the role of tobacco companies in creating and funding these campaigns.

The AAR acknowledges that it is funded by the tobacco industry as is the associated website ideservetobeheard.com.au.

The website encourages people to publish blogs, write to their MPs and “to get others involved”, thereby asserting their right to be heard - their freedom of speech.

Clearly, it is difficult for companies to claim to be acting in the public interest when they manufacture what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified as the single biggest cause of preventable disease, even if the claims are legitimate.

And when the same companies have a long history of dubious practices, which are a matter of public record, their credibility as champions of the little guy or defenders of free speech is likely to be a little thin.

Of course the caravan will move on. While smoking participation rates in Australia and other developed countries have halved over the last 35 years, smoking rates in developing countries continue to grow at about 3.5% per year, according to the WHO.

In the mean time, the battle goes on for the hearts and minds of small retailers.

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