Evidences

Plain packaging of cigarettes: a review of the evidence

Prepared by Quit, Cancer Council Victoria, April 2011

Executive summary

This paper presents the findings of research over two decades and across five countries on the topic of plain packaging. It includes the results of more than 25 published experimental studies which have examined the likely impact of plain packaging on young people and current smokers (Section 5) [1]. It also summarises the results of research papers that analyse industry arguments about barriers to legislation resulting from international law and trade agreements (Section 7).

The main findings from this compilation of literature are as follows:

  • In a worldwide environment of increasing prohibition of tobacco advertising and sponsorship, the cigarette pack has become the key marketing tool employed by the tobacco industry to attract and retain customers. (Section 3)
  • The tobacco industry uses cigarette pack technologies and innovations in design to communicate particular attributes about each brand and by extension the personality and social status of its users. (Section 4)
  • Current pack colours and imagery can dilute the impact of graphic health warnings. (Section 5.2.1)
  • Unregulated package colouring and imagery contribute to consumers’ misperceptions that certain brands are safer than others. Removing colours from cigarette packs and misleading terms such as ‘smooth’, ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ would reduce false beliefs about the harmfulness of cigarettes. (Section 5.2.2)
  • Adults and adolescents perceive cigarettes in plain packs to be less appealing, less palatable, less satisfying and of lower quality compared to cigarettes in current packaging. Plain packaging would also affect young people’s perceptions about the characteristics and status of the people who smoke particular brands. (Section 5.2.3)
  • Plain packaging featuring larger graphic health warnings (75% front of pack) will both reduce the appeal of the pack and strengthen the impact of the warnings. (Section 5.2.4)
  • British American Tobacco has claimed that the legislation will not be effective, pointing to the results of an international analysis it has commissioned (and provided data for) on the impact of health warnings on sales. Health warnings have a different objective to plain packaging and monthly variations in sales data are not an appropriate indicator of effectiveness. In any case the data on which this analysis is based is highly selective and the specifications of the modelling incorrect in at least one important respect. (Section 7.1).
  • The Alliance of Australian Retailers alleges that plain packaging would damage retailer business, increasing transaction time at the counter due to difficulties in differentiating between brands. The AAR suggests that as a result, customers would switch to discount outlets. However, any loss of convenience at retail outlets will apply equally to discount and convenience outlets. Measures including labelling of the containers where packs are stored and brand names printed on packs in a clear font style and size would assist retailers to quickly indentify and retrieve particular brands. (Section 6.3 and 7.2)
  • The tobacco industry claims plain packaging represents an acquisition of intellectual property and as such is prohibited under the terms of various international trade agreements. The industry has suggested the Australian Government would be forced to compensate the industry in billions of dollars. Papers by experts in constitutional and trademark law on the other hand suggest that international agreements permit governments to restrict use of trademarks to protect public health. They advise that plain packaging will not be an acquisition of intellectual property, as the Government does not intend to use the logos or brand imagery; it will simply be restricting the use of these marketing tools on cigarette packages. If Courts were to rule that restriction of use of trademarks was an acquisition of property, then the legislation has been drafted to allow the use of trademarks with limitations. (Section 7.3)
  • Plain packaging has been carefully considered and researched in Australia and overseas for some 20 years, but contrary to claims by tobacco companies it has not been abandoned as a policy option. The paper provides links to statements by parliamentarians in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the European Union, which are all either undertaking public consultation on plain packaging or have named plain packaging among proposals for future tobacco control strategies. (Section 7.4)
  • Companies have claimed that the legislation will reduce price and competition in the market. Opinions of industry analysts about the likely effects on competition are mixed. As pointed out by Deloitte MCS, future governments have open to them the option of further increasing excise and customs duty on tobacco products should average prices of tobacco products fall. (Section 7.5)
  • Tobacco industry claims that plain packaging will increase illicit trade are exaggerated and misleading. The industry’s estimation of the current size of the illicit market in Australia (15.9%) is based on one very small survey (949 people) with a very low response rate. The Government’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey of more than 23,000 people suggests that only about 0.3% of Australians (1.5% of smokers) use unbranded tobacco products ‘half the time or more’. The Australian Government’s draft plain packaging legislation specifies that anti-counterfeiting markings will be permitted on plain packaging, and the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service should and no doubt will continue to vigorously pursue technologies and other surveillance and enforcement strategies to prevent the evasion of excise and customs duty in this country. (Section 7.6)

In summary there are strong grounds for believing that current packaging glamourises smoking and that tobacco products packaged in a standardised colour, typeface and form would:

  • improve the effectiveness of health warnings
  • reduce misconceptions about relative harmfulness of various brands and
  • reduce the overall appeal of smoking

The intensity of opposition to plain packaging legislation by tobacco companies suggests that tobacco industry executives believe that such measures will reduce sales and company profits.

  • Foot notes
  • [1] V3 19.05.11.We intend to add to this review results of several more studies that we are informed are close to publication.