Plain packs offer a smoke-free future

Tobacco advertising faces losing its "final weapon". Picture: submitted
Tobacco advertising faces losing its "final weapon". Picture: submitted
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Packaging designs are the last weapon Big Tobacco has in its advertising arsenal, which is why it’s vital to get rid of them, says Dr James Cant

At this time of year, with the excesses of Christmas and Hogmanay behind us, many people are thinking of New Year’s resolutions – cutting down on alcohol, giving up that lunchtime packet of crisps – or finally kicking the smoking habit. That last one is particularly common, with thousands of people across Scotland giving up in January.

Picture: PA

Picture: PA

That’s important, because the Scottish Government wants us all to work together to make our nation tobacco-free by 2034, meaning that by then fewer than 5 per cent of people will be lighting up. It’s an ambitious aim, but an achievable one – New Zealand and Ireland are both going smoke-free by 2025 so the race is on.

We know what smoking does to our health (and our bank accounts) – to individuals and the nation as a whole.

Few people are surprised to hear that half of the people who use tobacco will die from it. Smoking will kill 13,000 Scots in the coming year. That’s the equivalent of the population of Carnoustie being wiped out one year, Linlithgow the next year, then Hawick… and so it goes on.

It’s an industry like no other and one that relies on a steady stream of cannon fodder each year to replace those who have died because of it. We know that and the tobacco industry knows it too. At the moment, Big Tobacco is depressingly effective at hooking kids on the habit. Every day this year an average of 55 Scottish children and young people will become smokers.

That’s why Big Tobacco spent so much, for so long, on advertising. They need new customers and advertising works. Those of us who were kids in the 1970s could barely turn on the TV or walk down the street without being bombarded with images of our sports stars wrapped in a tobacco firm’s livery. Times have changed – and for the better.

Despite howls of protest and threats, tobacco no longer features in conventional advertising. But there is one subtle, but vital, form of advertising that remains open to tobacco companies – branding and packaging.

We know it’s effective because, when asked, young people instantly identify the importance of brand in influencing their choice of what to smoke and how cool they perceive smoking to be. Each year, Big Tobacco invests millions of pounds in the efforts of their top branding and design teams to come up with innovative new packaging and colour schemes to appeal to young people.

That’s why the Scottish Government announced its intention to move towards Plain (Standardised) Packaging, a move that the UK Government now seems likely to adopt.

We know what to expect because Australia are a couple of years ahead of us on this issue, and that’s a blizzard of scare stories, legal threats and dirty tricks from Big Tobacco and their proxies.

So it’s time to get ready for the stories and ask if they really add up. Here are a few to look out for…

It’s an attack on smokers’ freedoms. No it’s not. People will still be able to smoke exactly the same cigarettes. No-one’s freedom to choose to smoke is being affected here. We just want to ensure your kids’ generation don’t get hooked in the same way.

Plain packs will make it easier for counterfeiters – really? So counterfeiters who can fake designer clothes, watches and electrical equipment haven’t been able to fake colourful cigarette packets but will suddenly fake plain packs?

You won’t be able to tell the difference between legal tobacco and illicit products. Yes you will. In exactly the same way you can just now. If you buy your tobacco from a registered trader and it’s the normal price, it’s almost certainly legal. If you buy for half the price from a bloke selling it from the boot of his car, it’s time to get suspicious.

Local packaging factories will close down. This is a favourite Big Tobacco ploy. It’s economic intimidation. But it’s also ludicrous if you think about. A factory will close down because a change in colour of the packaging. Really? Why?

It won’t make smokers quit. We know that. Nobody has claimed it will. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the next generation.

Big Tobacco is scared of plain packaging, really scared. They have every right to be; it will help cut off their final means of visual advertising and will be another significant step towards preventing the equivalent of two classrooms of kids getting hooked on their product every day.

Plain packaging will be too late to save the 13,000 Scots who will die from smoking in the coming year. But it will help us break the chain of addiction and save thousands of lives over the decades to come. We can’t let the tobacco industry fool us with tall tales and bought opposition – this is too important an issue in the fight to help the next generation of Scots stay smoke-free.

• Dr James Cant is Head of British Lung Foundation Scotland


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