Talking cigarette packs to encourage quitters

SMOKERS could soon be experiencing a new, unwelcome side effect to their unhealthy habit – hearing voices.

How talking cigarette packs might look. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
How talking cigarette packs might look. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
How talking cigarette packs might look. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Scottish researchers have created talking cigarette packets which inform addicts of the risks of tobacco use in case they had missed the prominent health warnings and gory pictures which already adorn the products.

After testing their prototypes with positive results on young women, the team from Stirling University are now widening its studies to include older age groups and men.

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The researchers, from the university’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research, created two packs with short messages, one giving a phone number for advice on quitting smoking and another warning that smoking reduces fertility.

The packs were fitted with a voice recording and playback unit, constructed so a pre-recorded message was played when the lid opened – similar to devices fitted in speaking or singing greetings cards.

The device was tested on women between the ages of 16-24, one of the groups that still has high smoking rates.

The volunteers thought the message about fertility was “hard-hitting” and “off-putting” and 16 and 17-year-olds in particular said it would make them think about quitting.

Others said it may make them consider cutting down or quitting – because they would find it so annoying. One woman said: “Some people would maybe say I need to pack that in because the packets are doing my nut in.”

Some of the volunteers had mixed feelings about the potential impact, saying they would just become accustomed to hearing the warnings. “I think you would probably get used to it … once you start smoking you just ignore it,” one volunteer said,

The researchers’ work has been inspired by how the packaging has evolved as companies try to make tobacco products attractive in ways which undermine the health warnings on packs.

They wanted to see if similar tactics could be deployed to counteract the marketing ploys used by firms and to deliver a health message instead.

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Crawford Moodie, one of the researchers, said cigarette manufacturers were already using sounds to appeal to smokers with packets that shut with a satisfying click.

“It is possible in the future we may see packs that play music or talk, so we wanted to see if that could be used for our purposes,” he said,

“With the talking packs, people thought they were annoying, but that is a really good way to capture attention. It created a lot of interest.”

Another method tested in the group of almost 50 women included putting the warning “smoking kills” down the side of each cigarette, in reaction to manufacturers creating coloured, patterned and aromatic tipping papers to appeal to smokers. However, most of the women did not think this warning would affect their smoking behaviour, while some said it would make them think twice about smoking in public.

The researchers also tested using barcodes which could be scanned to direct smokers to websites for advice on quitting, as well as pack inserts with information and advice, both again with mixed results.

The Scottish Government has backed the idea of introducing plain packaging for cigarettes, but is waiting to see what the UK Government does before deciding how best to proceed. While any changes to packaging would require legislation to force companies into using them, campaigners welcomed the attention being given to potential new ways of delivering tobacco warnings.

Sheila Duffy, chief executive of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) Scotland, said: “The tobacco industry buys a great deal of creative expertise to market its addictive and lethal products to new consumers, mainly young people.

“I welcome the suggestion that we get more creative to put forward images of good health and freedom from addiction as alternatives to tobacco, and that we start requiring tobacco companies to present the truth to their consumers in more eye-catching ways.”

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Alison Cox, tobacco control lead at Cancer Research UK, said: “We know that tobacco companies target women and younger people with stylish, colourful packs that reduce the impact of health warnings. This sophisticated marketing can mislead people as it disguises how harmful cigarettes are. This Cancer Research UK funded study is looking to see if the marketing tools of the tobacco industry can be used to help smokers quit instead.

“This and other research is part of our commitment to stop the tobacco industry targeting both children and adults, particularly as more than 200,000 children in the UK still start smoking every year.”

Simon Clark, director of the smokers’ lobby group Forest, said that talking cigarette packets could have consequences which perhaps the researchers had not intended.

“I can’t imagine anything more attractive to a child than a pre-recorded message. It’s like a talking birthday card,” he said.

“The more gruesome the message the more enticing it will be. That’s why horror films are popular with teenagers.

“The voice will be crucial. Consumers may want a choice of gender, or regional accent, like you get on a sat nav system. If the idea takes off I look forward to similar warnings when you open a bottle of beer or unwrap a bar of chocolate.”

Stub it out: other initiatives

The ban on smoking in public spaces

In March 2006 Scotland enforced the ban on smoking in public places – including bars and restaurants. After initial resistance smokers and establishments responded quickly to the changes. England, Northern Ireland and Wales followed a year later. In all four countries heart attack rates and hospital asthma admissions have fallen since the introduction of the ban, while Scotland’s premature birth rate has dropped by 10 per cent.

Tobacco packaging warning messages

In 1971, the first ever warning messages appeared on cigarette packs, reading: “WARNING by HM Government, SMOKING CAN DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH.” In 1991, this was upgraded to: “TOBACCO SERIOUSLY DAMAGES HEALTH.” In 2003, EU legislation required one of the two warnings to be displayed: “Smoking kills” or “Smoking seriously harms you and others around you” alongside other warning messages covering 40 per cent of the pack, such as: “Smoking is highly addictive, don’t start.” and “Smoking causes ageing of the skin.” From October 2008 all cigarette packages have carried picture warnings on the reverse, including images of diseased lungs.

Supermarket display bans

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In April 2013 large retailers were banned from displaying cigarettes and other tobacco products in their stores. It means supermarkets and other large shops in Scotland must hide cigarette packets behind screens. It also bans the sale of cigarettes from vending machines.

Removing branding from packages

Campaigners are now pushing for all branding to be removed from packaging in the hopes the lack of “glitzy” packets would deter young people from starting smoking. It would mean all packages would look the same.