Cigarette pack design gives misleading smoke signals
New research from the University of Nottingham published today shows that tobacco branding and packaging send misleading ‘smoke signals’ to young people and to adult smokers. (1) The research reveals that products bearing the word ‘smooth’ or using lighter coloured branding mislead people into thinking that these products are less harmful to their health. Since 2002 it has been illegal for manufacturers to use trademarks, text or any sign to suggest that one tobacco product is less harmful than another. But these regulations have clearly failed to stop misleading information appearing on tobacco packaging.
The research comes at a time of mounting pressure to strip packs of misleading branding leaving only the name of the brand in a standard font. In Australia the Government’s Preventative Health Task force has advised the Government to “Eliminate promotion of tobacco products through design of packaging” as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce tobacco deaths. (2) In the UK, the Liberal Democrat front bench are to reintroduce an amendment to the Health Bill to introduce similar restrictions in the UK. The Health Bill is due to be debated on 12 October, the first day Parliament returns from its summer recess.
Participants in the study were shown pairs of cigarette packs and asked to compare them on 5 measures: taste, tar delivery, health risk, attractiveness, and either ease of quitting (adults) or which they would choose if trying smoking (children). Adults and children were significantly more likely to rate packs with the terms “light”, “smooth”, “silver” and “gold” as lower tar, lower health risk and either easier to quit (adults) or their choice of pack if trying smoking (children). For example, more than half of adults and youth reported that brands labelled as “smooth” were less harmful than the “regular” variety. The colour of packs was also associated with perceptions or risk and brand appeal. For example, compared to Marlboro packs with a red logo, cigarettes in packs with a gold logo were rated as lower health risk by 53% and easier to quit by 31% of adults smokers.
The 516 adult smokers and 627 young people (aged 11 to 17) were also asked to rate plain packs where all branding was removed. Plain packs significantly reduced false beliefs about health risk and ease of quitting and were rated as less attractive and appealing by the children.
Lead author Professor David Hammond commented:
“A central feature of tobacco marketing strategy has been to promote the perception that some cigarettes are less hazardous than others, so that smokers worried about their health are encouraged to switch brands rather than quit. The truth is that all cigarettes are equally hazardous, regardless of what colour the pack is or what words appear on it. These tactics are giving consumers a false sense of reassurance that simply does not exist.”
Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of ASH said:
“This research shows that the only sure way of putting an end to this misleading marketing is to require all tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging. That would remove false beliefs about different brands and communicate the message that all cigarettes are dangerous. This matter has been discussed by Parliament and there is now a perfect opportunity to include a requirement for plain packaging of tobacco products to be included in the Health Bill.”
(1) Hammond D, Dockrell M, Arnott D, Lee A, Anderson S, McNeill A. Cigarette pack design and perceptions of risk among UK adults and youth. European Journal Public Health 2009; doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckp122
(3) An ASH Briefing on plain packaging for tobacco products can be viewed at https://www.ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_699.pdf
(4) Examples of what a plain pack would look like can be viewed at www.ash.org.uk/plainpack