Plain, standardised tobacco packaging will come in throughout the UK from Friday. It will make the packaging for an addictive and toxic substance more truthful and will prevent tobacco companies peddling the pack images, colours and designs that have helped entice generations of young people to start experimenting with their brands. Retailers will have a year to sell through their existing stock before plain packs become mandatory.
This is not primarily intended to reduce adult smoking rates, although it might help. For example researchers in Australia, where standardised tobacco packaging has been in place since late 2012, report that smokers say they are less inclined to pick up the sludge green packs with their simple fonts and prominent picture health warnings, and that they say the cigarettes don’t seem to taste as good in plain packs. Reducing adult smoking rates would be a welcome side-effect if it happens here, but it is not the main aim of standardised packaging nor should we expect to see quick results.
Plain packaging is a long-term measure. It aims to disrupt the carefully targeted brand recognition and image-mongering which tobacco companies use to build familiarity and hook the interest of new and mainly young consumers.
Cigarettes are highly engineered products and for many consumers they can easily become habit-forming or addictive, which undermines free choice. Tobacco packaging has long been used as a lure to entice people to try the contents, and to buy into the sizzle of carefully designed and targeted marketing imagery. It’s what profit-making corporations do.
Tobacco companies go much further than marketing in seeking to protect their profits. They have a long and well-documented history of public scaremongering and of seeking to derail or delay public health measures that aim to reduce tobacco use. Tobacco company Japan Tobacco International (JTI) has seeded the media with misleading images of stark, white packs omitting the mandatory picture health warnings, juxtaposed with unfounded claims that illicit tobacco will increase following their introduction. Tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI) has weighed in with inflated claims about illicit tobacco which fail to stand up under scrutiny.
If you listened only to the tobacco industry and their allies and vested interests, you would think that black market tobacco was booming here. Actually the rates of illicit tobacco in the UK have been declining since the start of the century according to the official figures from HMRC. Illicit tobacco remains a real problem, but not in the way the industry claims. No credible links have been demonstrated between illicit tobacco and either standardised tobacco packaging or tax increases. In fact since 2000 the size of the illicit market in the UK has declined by more than half even though the price of cigarettes has risen significantly over that period.
The Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance (TRA), a tobacco industry funded campaign group, recently posted an article under the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association’s ‘Friends of the Scotsman’ slot that perpetuated many myths about the impacts of tobacco reduction measures, in particular the predicted effects on small retailers. For those of us who ten years ago lived through the opposition arguments to proposed legislation to remove tobacco smoke from enclosed public spaces, it is all depressingly familiar.
Standardised tobacco packaging will not stop existing adult smokers buying their usual brands at their usual retail outlets, but it should make the packaging less of a brand accessory or statement for young people. It will work alongside covered-up point of sale displays by putting tobacco branding out of sight and out of mind in our society. There is no reason why it would increase the illicit tobacco trade, and no evidence that it has done so in Australia. Those working in enforcement say that they will have no problems detecting illicit tobacco just as readily with the new packaging.
Most of all, standardised packaging is truthful packaging. It signals to the next generation that this is a product that damages people’s bodies and their lives. The images of tumours, rotten teeth, infertility and early death represent the contents far more accurately than the previous bright colours and stylish designs. These picture health warnings will also increase in size from Friday. I am wondering where the tobacco companies plan to spend their vast marketing and promotional budgets next.
• Sheila Duffy, Chief Executive, ASH Scotland