Plain cigarette packaging – deterrent or disaster?

This week tobacco company Japan Tobacco International (JTI) launched a campaign against what it describes as a ‘lack of evidence’ behind the push from anti-smoking groups and the Government to standardise cigarette packaging.

JTI's advert
JTI’s campaign

The campaign, created by ad group Big Al’s Creative Emporium alongside the in-house team at JTI, is centered around the message ‘the evidence that removing branding will reduce smoking…would fit on the back of a cigarette pack’, shown in a handwritten style across a backdrop of a plain, opened-out cigarette box.

Text along the bottom of the ad suggests that there is ‘no evidence’ to support the claim that plain packs would prevent young people starting to smoke in the Department of Health’s consultation into the matter, which launched in April and has now been extended to end on 10 August.

The JTI ad says the same de-branding policy was rejected in 2008 due to lack of evidence; and that the rationale behind the move is based on ‘a panel of “experts” who are going to offer their subjective views on what people might do.’

The main JTI argument seems to be that by introducing plain, standardised packaging for cigarettes, the industry would open itself up to counterfeiting and illicit trade – a consequence that would not only harm smokers, but also the money brought in from the sale of cigarettes by the Exchequer.

Jeremy Blackburn, head of communications at JTI, says, ‘We want to openly share our views on the issue – the risks that could open up [if plain packaging is enforced] and the issue of transparency in the consultation. The main messages are the commercial impact, illicit trade and the idea of it reducing smoking uptake in the youth.’

He adds, ‘‘It’s commercial vandalism as far as we’re concerned – it’ reducing choice and denying manufacturers the ability to compete. A real concern is the illicit trade – we believe it will make it easier for counterfeiters to make fake cigarettes, which will have an impact on smaller businesses.’

As well as the argument that standardising packaging would do little to reduce smoking uptake, JTI argues that the legislation could set a dangerous precedent for the regulation of other products to follow suit.

Blackburn says, ‘We’re a competitive marketplace, so we have to have a range of brands just as any other FMCG brand would. There’s no evidence to say packaging influences minors: peer pressure, rebellion, image and curiosity are the key factors.

‘There’s a real concern that this type of legislation has the “what’s next” scenario – a lot of people are talking about what could happen with other FMCG categories. ‘It’s commercial vandalism as far as we’re concerned – it’ reducing choice and denying manufacturers the ability to compete.’

Examples of standardised, plain cigarette packaging. Olive green is thought to be the least attractive colour.
Examples of standardised, plain cigarette packaging proposed for Australia. Olive green is thought to be the least attractive colour.

Back in 2010, we reported on the then- Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s proposal to standardise packaging, which was mooted in advance of the White Paper.

For the 2010 piece, we spoke to JKR, a consultancy that has worked on several cigarette branding and packaging briefs over the years, about the proposal. Creative director Silas Amos agrees with the dangers that the legislation could lead to other products being forced to ‘de-brand’.

‘Politicians like to be seen doing things, and pack changes are highly visible demonstrations of activity, hence coverage of this proposal, which also included vending machines, public smoking, smuggling etc, tended to lead with the packaging aspect’, he says.

‘Next up, alcohol and then snack foods perhaps? The best insurance vulnerable brands can take out is to invest in their distinctive iconography while they still can.’

The JTI campaign was launched to coincide with the end of a government consultation on the issue, though this has now been extended until next month. The Department of Health’s consultation arose from the findings of a University of Stirling report, Plain Tobacco Packaging: a Systemic Review, published last year.

The review outlines findings from 37 studies that, it says, ‘provide concrete evidence of the impact of plain tobacco packaging.’

According to the review, the three main benefits to introducing plain packaging would be that tobacco products become less attractive and appealing; that health warnings become more obvious and that ‘it would reduce the use of design techniques that may mislead consumers about the harmfulness of tobacco products.’

However, it’s these same ‘design techniques’, JTI seem to suggest, that also deter forgeries.

Martin Southgate, managing director UK for JTI, says, ‘I fail to see how making illicit trade easier can be seen as progress on reducing smoking’

In February this year anti-smoking charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)  released a statement countering a report from  independent think-tank Adam Smith Institute, which had suggested that putting cigarettes in plain packaging would have no public health benefit, increase the illicit trade in tobacco and set a ‘dangerous precedent’ for other products.

According to ASH, ‘Existing packs are already easily counterfeited. Plain packs will still have to have covert markings, tax stamps and health warnings that are required on current packs so they will be no easier to counterfeit.

‘And the argument that it will “breach international trade rules and confiscate tobacco companies’ intellectual property” is also fallacious, according to the tobacco industry’s own legal advice, revealed in litigation.’

It adds, ‘[The Democracy Institute] previously argued that the ban on advertising, promotion and sponsorship wouldn’t work either. The proof is in the results: smoking prevalence among children has fallen by half since the ad ban came into effect.

‘But that still leaves hundreds of thousands of children taking up smoking each year. The pack is known in the industry as the “silent salesman”. Putting cigarettes in plain, standardised packaging is the obvious next step.’

An example of standardised, plain cigarette packaging.
An example of standardised, plain cigarette packaging proposed for Australia

And while JKR’s Amos agrees that any move to slow uptake in young smokers is a good thing, he questions whether de-branding would have the overwhelmingly off-putting effects that the University of Stirling review suggests.

In a blog for JKR on the proposals, Amos says, ‘If one accepts that packaging is an effective tool for segmentation and creating appeal amongst the unconverted, then one has to conclude that such a policy would actually be effective.

‘The only potential pitfall is that no branding is still branding of a kind – it says in effect “not approved by the authorities or the mainstream”. Just the kind of message that would appeal to wannabe teen rebels.’


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  • Mark Roberts November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    At some point i think it has to be realised however hideous the packs are made people will still smoke, it’s part of human nature to sometimes choose to do things we know are bad for us, there’s also always the ‘but it won’t happen to me’ factor.

  • Simon Bromley November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Japan Tobacco International (JTI) is obviously trying to mis-lead with their campaign – there are a wealth of studies showing how plain packaging deter people, particularly young people, from taking up smoking.

    Companies, like JTI, Imperial Tobacco and BAT specifically target children with their harmful products.

    Young people dying slowly from cancer is more worrying than any supposedly ‘commmercial vandalism’, whatever that is.

    Disappointing that this article skirts over the devastating health impact of tobacco products.

  • mano manoharan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The Tobacco industry tried the same ‘no impact’ tactics when TV advertising was banned years ago. Either design and ads have an impact on consumer behaviour or not. If not (as they claim) why are they spending so much on it? Anyway if they really want to side step the legislation – why not develop branded plastic cases that the white packs can then slip into? – a bit like mobile phone covers

  • Alan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’ve seen compelling arguments from both sides, but my gut feeling is that the effect to cut smoking amongst the young will be slow as I’m sure alternative containers will be designed and developed to appeal to the young. Much like the elegant cigarette cases owned decades ago.

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