In December 2012 Australia became the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes. The policy was a legislative coup, coming after a long and intensive battle with the tobacco industry, which fought hard to maintain their marketing strategy of branding cigarettes.
Packaging is an important marketing strategy for a number of reasons. It has been used to promote cigarette brands and build brand loyalty among smokers.
Over the years, the tobacco industry has used different parts of the cigarette pack – colour, descriptions, pack shapes, logos – to communicate with its smokers. These elements can be used to confuse people about the health risks. They have also been used to increase smoking among young adults, making certain brands cool, exclusive, or glamorous – in all cases appealing.
The aim of the plain packaging policy introduced by the Australian government was to discourage uptake of smoking by reducing the appeal of the product, increasing the effectiveness of the graphic health warning labels and reducing wrong perceptions about the harms of smoking.
Plain cigarette packs contain no logos or vibrant colours other than their drab, dark brown base colour. They show no pictures other than those depicting the physical consequences of smoking on the health warnings. And the only text on the pack warns against smoking and directs smokers to support services to quit such as Quitline.
It is based on good research showing young children attracted to colourful bright cigarette packs and repulsed at the plain packs.
At the University of Newcastle we have conducted studies of the impact of the plain cigarette packs on smokers’ ratings of appeal and perceptions of the product. We have found that plain packs are rated by long-term smokers as less appealing and attractive. The participants of our research also said that they had noticed deterioration in the quality of tobacco. They also reported that they now struggled to tell the difference between the tastes of different cigarette brands now that packs all looked the same.
This finding is important for a number of reasons. It indicates the power of product branding. Over a period of time when only the packaging had been altered, smokers questioned the content and quality of their cigarettes.
Initially, a success of the plain packaging policy has been to begin breaking down some of the long-established brand associations and images of cigarettes.
In other research, we have seen that cigarettes in plain packs are viewed less positively and reduce purchase intentions among groups with very high smoking rates. This research lends support to the plain packaging legislation and provides further information for other countries to take up the policy.
When plain packaging for cigarettes was introduced, the size of graphic health warning pictures on packs also increased. These graphic warning images are one of the most direct ways for communicating health risks to smokers. Plain packaging aims to increase effectiveness of these messages.
Smokers in our research discussed the new warning labels with interest. Warnings in the form of personalised stories about the health impacts of smoking hit home with smokers. Warning labels continue to be an important feature of cigarette packaging regulations, as some smokers expressed misconceptions and false beliefs about the harms of tobacco, such as “this won’t happen to me”. Health warning labels show graphically what can happen to smokers.
Our research findings are also an important weapon for continuing the fight against the tobacco industry. Recently the industry released a report claiming that plain packs have not been effective at encouraging people to give up smoking. One has to question data about a product released by a group with significant vested financial interests in that product.
Our results, conducted by independent university-based researchers with no conflict of interest, show the true potential of plain packs to reduce the burden of this major cause of disease. It is not surprising that the industry is fighting so hard to stop plain cigarette packaging.
Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, are looking to Australia for evidence of the benefits of introducing plain packaging legislation. This research provides positive supportive evidence.
This is particularly important for low-income countries with fewer public health resources, who have become the targets of the tobacco industry. As our research was conducted with smokers who were socially disadvantaged and with low income and education attainment, it suggests that plain packaging has significant potential to make a difference in global smoking rates.
This article originally appeared in the Newcastle Herald, 17 July 2014.
*University of Newcastle Associate Professors Billie Bonevski and Christine Paul and PhD candidate Ashleigh Guillaumier are the authors of a study on smokers’ perceptions of cigarettes in plain packaging.