For a policy the tobacco industry claims “won’t work” or that there “is no evidence” to support its implementation, plain packaging has elicited a deafening chorus of conflicting arguments as to why it should not be implemented.
So what are we to make of this industry claim of “no evidence”?
As plain packs have never been legislated, evidence about their possible impact must come from experimental studies where subjects have typically been presented with mock-ups of plain and branded packs and asked to describe their associations and preferences.
These studies consistently show that compared with branded packs, plain packs are perceived as “dull and boring”, cheap looking and reduce the flair and appeal associated with smoking.
The effect on young smokers – the very market the tobacco industry has threatened to recruit with price sweeteners should plain packaging go ahead – is even more pronounced.
When brand elements such as colour, branded fonts, and imagery were progressively removed from cigarette packs, adolescents perceived packs to be less appealing, rated attributes of a typical smoker of that pack less positively, and had more negative expectations of cigarette taste.
Teens are much less likely to associate specific brands with specific types of people when packs are plain, and even less so when plain packs also feature large graphic health warnings.
On-pack brand imagery distracts from, and reduces the impact of, health warnings. Students had an enhanced ability to recall health warnings on plain cigarette packs, suggesting that pack imagery can distract from health warnings.
The larger and more prominent the health warning, the more likely it is to be recalled. Plain packaging would enable the warning size to be further increased and allow for additional information elaborating on warnings and smoking cessation to be printed on packs.
The colour of packs is associated with perceptions of risk and brand appeal: compared with Marlboro packs with a red logo, Marlboro packs with a gold logo were rated as lower health risk by 53% and easier to quit by 31% of adult smokers in a UK study.
Unregulated package colouring and imagery also contributes to consumer misperceptions that “light and mild” brands are safer.
Removing on-pack imagery that deceives customers into believing one product is safer than another is sensible health policy.
Tobacco industry documents provide additional compelling evidence about the importance of packaging design to successfully advertise and sell cigarettes.
A former vice president of marketing for Imperial Tobacco agreed that packaging is vital in marketing, “it’s very difficult for people to discriminate blind-tested. Put it in a package and put a name on it, then it has a lot of product characteristics.”
This corroborates an earlier comment made by a British American Tobacco official that “one of every two smokers is not able to distinguish in blind (masked) tests between similar cigarettes …for most smokers and the decisive group of new, younger smokers, the consumer’s choice is dictated more by psychological, image factors than by relatively minor differences in smoking characteristics.”
The industry denies that packs are a form of advertising. However, there is abundant evidence that privately the industry thinks very differently about the promotional potential of packs.
For example, in 1995 a Brown and Williamson employee stated “… if you smoke, a cigarette pack is one of the few things you use regularly that makes a statement about you. A cigarette pack is the only thing you take out of your pocket 20 times a day and lay out for everyone to see. That’s a lot different than buying your soap powder in generic packaging.”
While it is true no other country has legislated plain packaging, contrary to industry campaigning there is ample evidence to show the importance of packaging in marketing tobacco products, particularly to young people.
By implementing plain packaging the government is acting on the evidence and building on the enviable success of Australian tobacco control policy.
A full review of the evidence as compiled by Australian health groups further counters industry claims.