Monday, July 21, 2014
Plain packaging for cigarettes is widely seen as a way to reduce the number of people smoking, but the notion that selling cigarettes in uniform, logo-free dull-green packages covered in health warnings will deter smokers fails to take into account both human nature and the way brands work. I wrote about this two years ago in Why Plain Packaging for Cigarettes is Unlikely to Work but in a way I was wrong. Not only did it not deter smokers it actually had the opposite effect, but for reasons that nobody seems to have predicted.
Advocates of plain packaging believe that smokers and aspiring smokers will be repelled by unattractive plain packages. This doesn't happen. Nobody smokes because the packages are cool; people start smoking because they believe that smoking is cool and they continue because they are addicted. 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.
Even if smokers were discouraged by ugly packaging it would not take long for people to realize that you could easily slip an attractive sleeve around the package, making the retail package more like a refill. Regulating these covers would 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. This has not happened in practice, confirming suspicions that smokers are not at all repelled by the new packages.
What has actually happened in Australia is that after 18 months of plain packaging smoking has not declined; it even increased slightly as reported in this article in The Australian. As many expected, smokers were not deterred by the packages but there was one effect that nobody predicted: smokers switched to cheaper brands, so they could either spend less or smoke more for the same price.
What is happening here is that packages used to be important to signal to other people which brand you smoked, and many people clearly chose a more expensive brand merely as a social display. Once all the packages are the same this no longer works so people simply buy the cheapest they can find. This might hurt the tobacco companies slightly, since it reduces sales of premium brands, but it does not do any good for the smokers.
Reducing the number of people smoking and, most importantly, the number of young people starting is a key public health goal, but 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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