Why plain packaging for cigarettes is unlikely to have much effect

Plain packaging for cigarettes is widely seen as a way to reduce the number of people smoking (see Plain packaging for cigarettes would help Britain kick its smoking habit The Guardian 10 August 2012). Both the EU and the UK government are now considering this move, already adopted in Australia. But the notion that selling cigarettes in logo-free dull green packages will deter smokers fails to take into account both human nature and the way brands work.

Advocate of plain packaging believe that smokers and aspiring smokers will be repelled by unattractive plain packages.  I doubt that this will have much effect. Nobody smokes because the packages are cool; people start smoking because smoking is cool – at least in their eyes. Existing legislation also ensures that people are not going to pick up a packet of cigarettes from a supermarket shelf because it looks stylish; they ask for a brand they have already chosen and they are influenced more by the image of the brand rather than the packaging.

Packages are important in one way. Like everyone else, smokers like their choice of brand to be seen by other people when they take out the package. In theory this could be one moment where plain packaging might have some impact, but it will not take long for people to realize that you can easily slip an attractive sleeve around the package, making the retail package more like a refill. Regulating these covers will be very complex if at all possible. The move might also lead to the emergence of a market for third party covers, like for smartphones.  It could even prompt the return of elegant, Bertie Wooster style cigarette cases.

Equally suspect is the idea that putting cigarettes in a dull green box will make smoking uncool. It is much more likely that the reverse will happen -- it will make dull green a very cool colour in just the same way as ugly military colors and designs are popular with some people because of their associations. And if this doesn't happen by itself I am sure that someone could help make it happen.

Decorating the plain packages with deliberately disgusting pictures of diseased lungs and other failed body parts is more likely to work, at least for new smokers, but again it is easy enough to find a workaround with a sleeve or box that covers or replaces the plain packages.  With time people are likely to get used to these images, which will lose their deterrent value just like “Smoking Kills”. Young smokers do not have a long-term perspective so are rarely swayed by arguments like smoke today and you’ll pay for it fifty years hence.

Reducing the number of people smoking and, most importantly, the number of young people starting is a key public health goal, but I fear that we need to find some other solution than plain packaging, which can never be more than a small part of the answer.

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