11A.1 Plain packaging as a solution to the misleading and promotional power of packaging

Last updated: November 2018

Suggested citation: Scollo, MM, & Greenhalgh, EM. InDepth 11A.1 Plain packaging as a solution to the misleading and promotional power of packaging. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2018. Available from: http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-11-advertising/11a-1-plain-packaging-as-a-solution

The idea of plain packaging was first conceived in Canada in the late 1980s during a legal challenge to Canadian legislation banning tobacco advertising. Tobacco control advocates were struck by testimony of an Imperial Tobacco executive who agreed during questioning that smokers were generally unable to discriminate between brands when blind-tested and that packaging was vital.1

'It's very difficult for people to discriminate blind-tested. Put it in a package and put a name on it, then it has a lot of product characteristics.'

Aubin, British American Tobacco 1989 p1

This corroborated an earlier comment by a British American Tobacco official 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.'

British American Tobacco 1978 2 p5

Proposals for plain packaging were put to governments on several occasions over the following two decades.

In its comprehensive review of the impact of tobacco promotion on tobacco use, the Department of Health's Toxic Substances Board recommended in 1989 that cigarettes be sold in New Zealand in white packs with simple black text and no colours or logos.3 New Zealand health advocates in 19903 noted that restrictions in tobacco advertising would only be partly successful as the 'pack itself is a powerful form of advertising'.3

In Australia in 1992, the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer recommended on the basis of its findings about the impact of packaging on the effectiveness of warnings that 'regulations be extended to cover the colours, design and wording of the entire exterior of the pack' (p18).4 In 1995, Canadians Cunningham and Kyle argued for the plain, 'generic' packaging of tobacco products, stressing that the pack was a key promotional vehicle and as such should be subject to the same controls that apply to all forms of tobacco advertising.5

Plain packaging was advocated once again by several New Zealand public health specialists in 2008.6 In 2008, the Australian national Preventative Health Taskforce included recommendations for plain packaging in its draft discussion paper outlining a range of possible measures to make Australia the healthiest country in the world by 2020.7, 8 The proposal was included in the strategy released in 2009.9 Late in 2009, in an editorial concerning one of the numerous studies published between 2008 and 2011—see Section 11A.2—Moodie and Hastings10 called for the introduction of plain packs of identical shape, method of opening, base colour, devoid of 'all' promotional items.

At their meeting 17–22 November 2008, Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control adopted guidelines on advertising and package labelling that recommend the use of plain packaging.11

Commentators suggested that plain packaging would require the removal of all brand imagery from cigarette packs, permitting manufacturers to only print the brand name in a mandated size, font and place, in addition to health warnings and other legally required product information such as toxic constituents, tax-paid seals, or package contents.5 The size and shape of the package would also need to be regulated in order to outlaw novelty pack shapes. All Australian states and territories already prohibit sale of single cigarettes and mandate the minimum number of cigarettes in a pack (20 cigarettes), reasoning that small packs, being less expensive, are more attractive to young people. Advocates argued that plain packaging should encompass pack interiors and the cigarette itself, given the demonstrated potential for manufacturers to use colours, bandings and markings and different length and gauges to make cigarettes more 'interesting' and appealing. Legislation to mandate plain packaging that covered all aspects of cigarette and pack design would, advocates argued, effectively standardise the appearance of all cigarette packages and cigarettes, greatly reducing the status-signalling roles and appeal of cigarettes.12

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References 

1. Aubin H. Are 'generic' packs cigarettes' future?  Media release. 08/e nov 1989. British American Tobacco, 1989. Available from: http://bat.library.ucsf.edu//tid/per26a99 .

2. British American Tobacco. The vanishing media British American Tobacco, Editor 1978. Available from: http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/jlf17a99.

3. Carr-Gregg M and Gray A. ‘Generic’ packing: A possible solution to the marketing of tobacco to young people. Medical Journal of Australia, 1990; 153:685−6. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2246993

4. Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer. Health warnings and contents labelling on tobacco products. Melbourne: Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, 1992. Available from: http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/gku34e00/pdf.

5. Cunningham R and Kyle K. The case for plain packaging. Tobacco Control, 1995; 4:85−7. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/4/1/80

6. Thomson G, Wilson N, and Hoek J. A call to reduce harm from tobacco pack marketing and bolster consumer health protection in New Zealand. New Zealand Medical Journal, 2008; 121(1284):98–101. Available from: http://www.nzma.org.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/17805/Vol-121-No-1284-17-October-2008.pdf

7. Tobacco Working Group. Technical report no. 2. Tobacco in Australia: Making smoking history. Canberra: National Preventative Health Taskforce, 2008. Available from: http://webarchive.nla.gov.au/gov/20160923060300/http://www.preventativehealth.org.au/internet/preventativehealth/publishing.nsf/Content/national-preventative-health-strategy-1lp

8. Preventative Health Taskforce. Australia: The healthiest country by 2020: A discussion paper. Preventative Health Taskforce: Commonwealth of Australia, 2008. Available from: http://webarchive.nla.gov.au/gov/20160923060312/http://www.preventativehealth.org.au/internet/preventativehealth/publishing.nsf/Content/discussion-technical-1

9. Preventative Health Taskforce. Australia: The healthiest country by 2020. National preventative health strategy. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2009. Available from: http://webarchive.nla.gov.au/gov/20160923060300/http://www.preventativehealth.org.au/internet/preventativehealth/publishing.nsf/Content/national-preventative-health-strategy-1lp

10. Moodie C and Hastings G. Plain packaging: A time for action. European Journal of Public Health, 2010; 20(1):10−1. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/eurpub/article/20/1/10/610902

11. Conference of the Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Guidelines for implementation of article 11: Guidelines on packaging and labelling of tobacco products. Adopted at third session, Durban South Africa 17−22 November 2008: World Health Organization, 2008. Available from: http://www.who.int/fctc/guidelines/adopted/article_11/en/

12. Freeman B, Chapman S, and Rimmer M. The case for the plain packaging of tobacco products. Addiction, 2008; 103:580−90. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18339104