Plain Cigarette Packaging: A Research Based Justification.

IMAG0318bLast week the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Imperial Tobacco to overturn new legislation banning the display of tobacco products in Scotland.

I imagine that most of you will agree with me that this is great news.

Why we even entertain the tobacco companies’ opinion on the matter of banning cigarette displays is beyond me, after all, tobacco companies admitted to lying for years about the dangers of smoking. They knowingly promote an extremely addictive product that kills half of its users. As Samuel L Jackson would say:

This news follows on from Australia’s plain packaging cigarette policy, which came into force this December. Basically, all cigarettes sold in Australia now come in olive green packaging, with little to distinguish between the brands apart from the name and the variant. Encouragingly, British MP’s are calling for the introduction of similar policies in the UK.


Naturally, the tobacco industry has come up with several arguments against plain packaging rules, and have responded to the plain packaging legislation by accusing the government of becoming a Nanny state.


Nanny State??


Ah, but of course…

Their main assertion is that there is no evidence that plain packaging is effective in discouraging young smokers, or encouraging existing smokers to quit.

They would say that though. After all, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

turkeyContrary to what the tobacco companies would have you believe, a causal effect between exposure to tobacco promotion and the initiation of tobacco use in children has been established (DiFranza et al., 2006). Morgenstern, Isensee, and Hanewinkel (2013) also found evidence that mere exposure to cigarette advert is all that is needed to enhance a young adolescent’s  attitude towards it. This ‘mere exposure’ effect is an implicit process and does not require one to consciously attend to the stimuli (Gordon & Holyoak, 1983).

Clearly, children are influenced by exposure to cigarette packaging, which irrefutably supports a global movement towards plain packaging – the less exposure they have to brand information, the better. This is important, because in the UK and the US, most adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 18.

Neuroscience research highlights the negative impact that starting smoking in adolescence can have on the development of the adult human brain. Galvan et al. (2011) compared late adolescent smokers (15-21) with non-smokers (16-21), and found that the more addicted the teenage smokers were to nicotine, the less activity they showed in their prefrontal cortex.

This area has been implicated in decision-making and cognitive control, and it continues to develop throughout late adolescence. The researchers suggest that smoking may consequently influence how this region of the brain develops, which may have long-term consequences for the individual’s decision making ability – which may make them more likely to continue smoking through adulthood.


Ignore what the tobacco companies are saying. They know how important packaging is in marketing. A report from a former vice president of marketing for Imperial Tobacco asserted that:

“one of every two smokers is not able to distinguish in blind (masked) tests between similar cigarettes …for most smokers and the decisive group of new, younger smokers, the consumer’s choice is dictated more by psychological, image factors than by relatively minor differences in smoking characteristics.” (p. 5)


“This doesn’t taste right…”

A myriad of factors can influence a smokers perception of a brand. For example, smokers concerned with the health risks of cigarettes are more likely to choose white packaging (Bansal-Travers et al., 2011a). The new olive green packs prevent tobacco companies from preying on this misconception.

Of course, the companies are finding ways to push their brands onto smokers despite these packaging laws. For example, in the absence of colourful packaging, they have begun using verbal imagery to distinguish their brands, with varieties such as “sea green menthol” and “smooth amber”, “crush blue”. Like colour, different words can also change people’s perceptions of the health risks of cigarettes, with words like “light”, “silver” and “smooth” perceived as delivering less tar and a lower health risk compared to other descriptions (Bansal-Travers et al., 2011b).

As McLure et al. (2004) demonstrated when they researched consumer preferences for Coca Cola and Pepsi, brand information can have a dramatic impact on behavioural preferences and on brain responses in consumers. Many smokers show strong brand preference and loyalty, and given that nicotine and sugar both activate the reward circuitry of the brain, we can presume that brand information on cigarette packaging has a similar effect on smokers’ preferences.


Brand Loyalty

Plain packaging is a step towards both preventing future generations from developing this deadly addiction, and helping those who are trying quit the habit by removing many of the cues and associations that can drive them to continue buying tobacco products. And if anybody disagrees –

  1. jimmyg said:

    I can’t believe that people in a PR company are making money from that Nanny State campaign. Do they believe so blindly in free speech that they can’t see past the damage that people are doing to themselves with smoking. I remember reading about this packaging legislation in a Guardian article. I was interested to note that cigarette firms are turning to foreign registered online advertising to get around the ad bans that are also in place. People have also noticed some pretty suspicious video posts on social media that could easily have been made by ad companies. They are posted as real reviews of different cigarette brands but it is very likely that they aren’t what they seem. One tragi-comic aspect of all this is poor tobacconist James Yu in Sydney. It now takes him about four hours (instead of one) to unload a delivery at his shop! Now that’s proof that it’s really difficult to differentiate brands. Ultimately, I don’t think this will stop many people smoking. It’s an addiction that some find very hard to kick and they wont be deterred by a lack of fancy branding.

  2. I feel I must play the devils advocate. I do, of course, understand the points of plain packaging and preventing minors from even starting.

    But smokers are more and more treated unfairly in comparison to users of other drugs. I simply find it ridiculous. If I wanna smoke, I smoke and if I don’t I’ll leave it. I pay for it. I do not need the state to nanny me. When I was small (gold locks and cherub face I might add) smokers were allowed to smoke in bars, trains and airplanes, during that time in Germany cigarette machines were accessible for anyone on the sides of the road that could reach the money slot (now you have to put your ID in them).


    The regulations in Germany are, that every bar has to have a separate smoking room. Small businesses that could not provide those were ruined as noone goes to a bar where they cannot smoke (outside there are often regulations due to noise complaints).

    What about the taxes smokers pay? Smokers are already treated unfairly and already do pay too high taxes for the damage they cause in society. The UK pays almost the highest taxes in Europe (77%); or to say it drastically: smokers finance big party of the country. And now they are not allowed a free choice of colour?
    And as you already talked about sugar, then what about obesity and advertisements that promote unhealthy food products as social, fun and trendy (that was forbidden to ads industry already)? And what about the alcohol industry that promotes freedom and sexiness (the Marlboro man was banned)? Both of them cause disease and absenteeism and therefore cost taxpayers even more.

    At the moment, not only the prices, but also the discussion about further regulation become non-sense.I just do not see how it is fair to ban advertisements on cigarette packages whereas false food advertising is harming even more people on a daily basis – accessible even to minors. It hurts businesses and violates equal rights. I think banning labels is the wrong approach; educating smokers about their options reduces possible harm.

    • A 2009 study found that treating disease directly caused by smoking produces medical bills of £5.2bn per year, 5.5% of the entire NHS budget, and accounts for almost one in five of all deaths and a significant amount of disability. Estimates of tax revenue from tobacco revealed that in the same year, £10bn worth of tax was generated from tobacco sales. So it would appear that smokers do indeed pay for their own treatment!

      This makes it even more reassuring to me that the government is committed to reducing numbers of smokers. It suggests that the government places a higher value on people’s lives than it does on the amount of money that tobacco sales generate. So I don’t really buy the argument that because smokers pay high taxes on cigarettes, the government should just leave them alone. Will changing the cigarette package colour stop someone who wants to buy cigarettes? No. Will it deter non-smokers or people who are considering smoking from taking up smoking? Early research (although it’s an understandably under researched topic) suggests yes (Vita, 2012). Consequently I think whatever pleasure a smoker gets from buying a red pack over a blue pack is outweighed by the benefit to the overall health to society.

      I also don’t think education is going to solve things. We all know how dangerous cigarettes are; yet people continue to smoke them. How much more education can you give people than that?

      For the record, I agree with you about fast food and alcohol. These are just as harmful, and I think fast food promotions in particular should be looked at more carefully, particularly given the rising obesity levels. I also think we should look at how acceptable it is to advertise sugary drinks, which also contribute to an unhealthy diet.

      However, I think it’s unrealistic for the government to address all these issues at once – and out of all of the vices you’ve mentioned, I think it’s undeniable that cigarettes are the most harmful, and so I think it’s completely appropriate that the government targets these first.

      Finally, I don’t think cigarette users are treated unfairly to users of other drugs. Marijuana is much more expensive and if you get caught carrying it you’ll get an £80 fine!

  3. I agree with your point that the tobacco’s packaging can influence smokers. I think the relationship with making money and keeping healthy is very delicate. Because companies want to make more money from making cigarette, but for ethic and laws, they must recommend people that how serious if you smoking. All of countries are in the same condition that people often do smoke before 18. That is very shocking. Before 18, people’s body systems are not ready for the cigarette, if they start to smoke in that early, it will make more harm than smoking after 20. Actually, no matter how many solutions there will be, the most important thing is consumers’ mental process. If they don’t want to smoke, there will be no relationship with packaging and there will be less disease.

    • Thank you for your comment! You mentioned in your reply that if people don’t want to smoke, then there will be no relationship with packaging. I agree, however the problem is that people who are addicted to a substance show strong attentional bias for substance related cues. These cues can exert incredible control over their behaviour, and have been associated with behaviour maintenance and relapse (Waters et al., 2003)

      There is a strong biological basis for this attentional bias. Luijten et al. (2012) found that smokers showed greater activation in areas of the brain associated with decision-making, reward anticipation, emotion, intentionality when exposed to smoking related cues. They suggest that substance related cues evoke enhanced dopaminergic activity in these brain areas. They found that giving smokers a dopamine antagonist (resulting in a reduction of dopamine) reduces the brain activation associated with attentional bias to normal levels, making these cues less salient.

      I myself have found myself in situations where I was trying to abstain from addictive substances, yet in the presence of substance related cues have relapsed several times. According to an office for national statistics report, 63% of smokers want to give up, and 25% plan to do so in the next 12 months. These are large proportions of the smoking population, and from my perspective, the government is doing a massive favour to these people, by helping to reduce the number of smoking related cues in our environment.

      Picture your average newsagent or cigarette machine. Lots of different cigarrette packages, all leaping out to grab your attention. A wall of different smoking related cues to grab your attention and make you want to smoke. Now imagine you are confronted instead with a drab wall of olive green, with packets indistinguishable from each other. I would argue that it is less likely that your attention would be captured so strongly. This is a really important element of cigarette buying/attentional bias process in the real world, and I think it’s a key area for future research.

  4. Brilliant Blog. Everybody knows the dangers that smoking has on all parts of the body, the brain included. I thinking the marketing of cigarettes should be stopped. It may help to create a sort of taboo toward smoking for youths and adults alike, if the product is hidden out of sight it may make people feel they are doing something illegal by asking for it. In Ireland they have banned all types of advertising of cigarettes, I cant seem to find any official statistics on it but I think it has created this sort of effect.

  5. jamesuh said:

    Really interesting find – I especially enjoyed reading Tobacco Companies’ piteous attempts to argue their case against plain packaging. What makes me chuckle even more is that their opening remark they claim that plain packaging has no evidenced effect. Well, if you don’t think it will in any way alter sales, then why not allow it?
    I think I should qualify: I smoke. Somewhere between a social smoker and just more than that. I think it’s prabably the most ridiculous thing in the world. I can just about appreciate cigars – a good one is like a good coffe bean, or a good 95% chocolate. But with these things, you’re supposed to enjoy them in moderation. I think the excessive consumption of cigarettes, while obviously being due to their addictive qualities, is also a reflection of our general overconsumption of everything. People keep harping on about possible food shortages. But if we all make a concerted effort to eat like they do in Asia, as opposed to America, any potential of a shortage of food suddenly dissappears.
    I was also tickled by their claim that unbranded tobacco will lead to a resurgance of conterfeit products. Who know what illicit tobacco will contain?! – Who know what the hell they put into the legitimate product either!!! A few years back I saw an Ad explaining that most had at least 69 chemicals in – including formaldehyde of all things. The other day I heard someone say they were, at one time or another, putting sugar in there too! Bloody barmy.

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