Strong evidence supporting plain packaging for all tobacco products on the eve of Lords vote
A new study  presented today in Dublin  has found a significant link between cigarette branding and ‘false beliefs’ among smokers and children. The authors argue that this link provides strong evidence for the introduction of plain packaging  for all tobacco products in the UK.
The study surveyed 516 adult smokers and 806 children aged 11 to 17. They were asked to compare brands on five measures: taste, tar delivery, health risks, attractiveness and either ease of quitting (adult smokers) or the brand they would chose if trying smoking (children).
The study hypothesized that certain brands which were, for example, labelled as “smooth” would be seen less harmful, easier to quit, and more appealing to children. More than half of adults and children reported that brands with the word “smooth”. Adult and child participants routinely made this assumption: for example, more than half of adults and children reported that brands with the word “smooth” on packs would be less harmful to smoke. Children and adults also believed that packs in lighter colours—grey vs. dark red, for example—would be less harmful and easier to quit.
Although it has been illegal to make misleading health claims on tobacco branding since 2003  with descriptors such as ‘light’ and ‘mild’ being banned, 75% of adult smokers incorrectly believed there was a difference in health benefits between brands. This was replicated in the sample of children who have grown up during an era when most forms of tobacco advertising have been banned.
The participants were also asked to compare “normal” branded packs with plain packs—packs with the colours and symbols removed. Both adult smokers and children were much less likely to perceive any difference in terms of health risk when the packs were plain. They were also much less likely to view the plain packs as attractive and something they would like to smoke.
Lead author David Hammond said:
“Research in the US, Canada, Australia and now the UK all support the case for tighter regulations on pack branding. Tobacco packages are portable advertisements that have long been used to reassure consumers about the risks of smoking. In this study, children as young as 12 reported significant levels of false beliefs about the risks of cigarette brands based upon the colours and words on UK packs. Plain packaging has great potential as a public health measure and I urge the UK Government to support this measure.”
On 6th May members of the House of Lords will vote on an amendment, tabled by Lord Patel, to The Health Bill to mandate plain packaging for all tobacco products.
Notes and links:
1. Hammond. D. et al. Cigarette pack design and perceptions of risk among UK adults and youth. SRNT. 28th April 2009.
2. Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco Annual Meeting, Dublin
3. Plain packaging, also known as generic, standardised or homogeneous packaging, means that the attractive, promotional aspects of tobacco product packages are removed and the appearance of all tobacco packs on the market is standardised. Except for the brand name (which would be required to be written in a standard typeface, colour and size), all other trademarks, logos, colour schemes and graphics would be prohibited. The package itself would be required to be plain coloured (such as white or plain cardboard) and to display only the product content information, consumer information and health warnings required under the law. (Department of Health. Consultation on the Future of Tobacco Control. 2008)
4. European Commission: Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General. Tobacco Product Directive 2001/37/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2001. Jul 18, 2001.