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Branding carcinogens - the plain packaging debate

Friday 8 April, 2011 by Rebecca

Imagine the conversation if other products as deadly as tobacco were sold at the newsagents. "I'll have a pack of Fresh-Burst asbestos please." 

"Oh we're all out. How about a packet of Happy Daze asbestos?"

"Oh, no, I've always taken Fresh-Burst, they just seem lighter to me."

Without the comparison to tobacco this situation seems laughable.

Firstly, who would brand a group 1 carcinogen? Secondly, who would knowingly go out of their way to consume a group 1 carcinogen - a product proven to cause cancer? And finally, what on earth would cause brand loyalty to such a product?

The branding on tobacco packages has become a battle ground for the health industry and big industry this week as the Federal Government released its draft plain packaging legislation.

The legislation will mean that cigarette packs will no longer be able to contain company branding. They will be uniformly plain with enlarged graphic health warnings.

Predictably the tobacco industry has been exceptionally vocal on this issue highlighting infringements on intellectual property, shopkeeper's livelihoods, or smoker's civil liberties. It has also been shouting to anyone who will listen that plain packaging won't have an impact on smoking rates.

If this is the case, why is Big Tobacco being so vocal - does the lady, perhaps, protest too much?

The announcement of the draft legislation sparked every TV news channel to get out and vox pop every smoker found wandering in Fed Square. The reactions have been varied with many stating it won't have an impact on their habit.

So, why are we so happy?

1. Research shows teenagers find cigarettes in plain packs less appealing and believe they will taste worse than those in current cigarette packs. Additionally - research shows that teens also think people who smoke from plain packs are less stylish and sociable.

 2. Many cigarette packs are designed to appeal to young people. Why's that you ask? Hook ‘em while they're vulnerable. 80% of smokers started smoking when they were teenagers, so if the tobacco industry can get you to cross over from experimenting to smoking when you're young, they may have just snagged a customer for life.

3. Plain packaging will highlight the graphic warnings.  We know graphic health warnings help people quit - in fact when they were introduced in 2006 the phones rang off the hook at Quitline for months. Plain packs will give renewed prominence to these warnings, by taking away the conflicting ‘attractive' carton designs currently alongside them.

4. Packaging is a vital component of promoting cigarettes, especially in Australia where every other form of advertising has been restricted. You may think it's just a pack, but it's meticulously designed to convey images that appeal to different groups of people. In fact, industry documents show that tobacco companies have been preoccupied with developing packaging deemed to be 'new,' 'innovative' and 'fashionable. They do this because they know it can increase sales.

5. Cigarettes kill half of all long-term smokers. They're not a normal consumer product, so why would we allow them to be packaged like one? If tobacco was only discovered yesterday along with the harmful effects it has on health, there's no way it'd make it into stores at all in any packaging - let alone in bright, attractive packs that are designed to entice consumers.

How can we allow something that kills 15 thousand people in Australia every year be marketed like an everyday, desirable product?

It's a bit like selling little blocks of asbestos next to the newspapers and tram tickets.

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