Scottish teenagers believe slimline cigarettes are stylish, feminine and possibly safer than regular brands, new research suggests.
A study by Stirling University found that youngsters believed thinner cigarettes were weaker, more palatable, and less harmful than more traditional products.
The researchers suggested that as well as standardised, plain packaging for tobacco products, the design of the cigarettes themselves may need to be considered to prevent products appealing to children.
An estimated 55 children aged 11 to 15 in Scotland start smoking each day, according to campaigners.
The latest study used a focus group of 15-year-olds from Glasgow to assess their views of eight different cigarette brands, in various lengths, diameters, colours and designs.
The teenagers were most attracted to slim and super-slim cigarettes with white filters and decorative features, describing them as “classy” and “nicer”.
However the researchers pointed out that some super-slim brands contained more dangerous tobacco chemicals than their bulkier counterparts.
In contrast one long brown cigarette was viewed as particularly harmful and labelled “disgusting”, “really, really strong”, and “old fashioned”.
Professor Gerard Hastings, Cancer Research UK’s social marketing expert at Stirling University and one of the study authors, said: “Our research confirms previous studies that both the pack and the product are powerful marketing tools in the hands of the tobacco industry which it is using to recruit a new generation of smokers.
“It’s time policy makers moved to standardise both.”
Fellow researcher Allison Ford added: “This important study reveals for the first time that adolescents associate slim and decorative cigarettes with glamour and coolness, rating them as a cleaner, milder and safer smoke.
“It is incredibly worrying to hear that adolescents believe that a stylishly designed cigarette gives a softer option.”
The study found that teenagers thought white tips and longer cigarettes portrayed a cleaner, feminine image reminiscent of glamorous female stars from old movies. The image softened perceptions that smoking was harmful, said the scientists.
Cigarettes with white tips were also associated with menthol, which was perceived as weaker and less harmful.
In their paper, published in the European Journal of Public Health, the researchers wrote: “The slimmer diameters of these cigarettes communicated weaker tasting and less harmful-looking cigarettes.
“This was closely linked to appeal as thinness implied a more pleasant and palatable smoke for young smokers.”
Cancer Research UK is campaigning for plain standardised packaging of cigarettes and has launched an online film accusing the tobacco industry of encouraging children to smoke.
The Scottish Government has pledged to legislate on plain packaging of tobacco products by 2014/15, despite the issue being shelved by the Westminster government as it waits to assess the impact of legislation on standard packets in Australia.
Mumsnet chief executive and co-founder Justine Roberts, who supports the Cancer Research UK campaign, said: “Very few parenting issues are completely black and white, but nobody wants their child to start smoking.
“Standardised packs may not be a silver bullet, but Mumsnet users are clear that they’d be very happy to see them as part of a range of measures to discourage children from getting hooked.”
Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK public affairs manager in Scotland, said they were pleased Scotland was to take measures to introduce plain packaging for tobacco products.
“The evidence shows children are attracted to glitzy, slickly-designed cigarettes and packs,” he said.
“Smoking is a serious problem in Scotland with lung cancer claiming 4,100 lives each year. The majority of smokers start before they turn 19 and, with up to eight out of 10 cases of lung cancer caused by smoking, introducing standardised packaging will discourage children from taking up this deadly habit in the first place.”
But Simon Clark, director of the smokers’ group Forest, said: “Public policy shouldn’t be based on the subjective opinions of teenage children.
“Adult smokers are entitled to a choice of tobacco product, whether that be slim, menthol or standard cigarettes.
“If government really wants to stop children smoking they should focus on education and enforce existing legislation.
“Targeting packaging and individual products that have a very small market share is an irresponsible distraction from the real issues.”
The Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association has also questioned the evidence for introducing standardised packaging, pointing to a consultation on the issue in which the majority opposed such a move.