The importance of the cigarette pack, in the tobacco industry's own words

Standardised cigarette packaging in Australia, where it has been mandated since 2012. Although tobacco companies say ...
CAMERON SPENCER / GETTY IMAGES

Standardised cigarette packaging in Australia, where it has been mandated since 2012. Although tobacco companies say they want to be socially responsible, Philip Pattemore writes that their aggressive legal challenges claiming lost revenues from standardised packaging tell a different story.

In advance of World Smokefree Day on May 31, pediatrican DR PHILIP PATTEMORE writes that plain packaging is a key tool in lowering harm from smoking.

OPINION: The New Zealand government is to be congratulated for moving forward with plans to legislate for standardised cigarette packaging this year. 

If New Zealand is serious about child health, then we need to remove the branding elements of the pack that the tobacco industry uses to market cigarettes. Such legislation is not targeting smokers, but rather the industry that markets and promotes a highly addictive and harmful product. 

Most smokers do not want their children to smoke. This is a vital step to protect those children.

Tobacco control strategies are important, because of the harm to society from smoking tobacco, documented by a massive volume of medical literature and research.  This harm is not only to the users, who die on average 11 years younger than non-smokers.  The damage to non-smokers is also very large, particularly to the 200,000-300,000 NZ children exposed to tobacco smoke in the womb or in their environs every year.   

These children are at increased risk of medical conditions including cot death, serious respiratory infections, asthma, ADHD, and behavioural and learning difficulties. They are at increased risk of becoming smokers themselves. Medical professionals simply cannot stand by and ignore this burden of disease, which we know is preventable.

Smoking usually starts during the impressionable years of childhood and adolescence, and is maintained by nicotine addiction, which becomes intertwined with many daily habits and routines.  

n public the tobacco industry claims it does not market to young people. However the industry's internal memos (released onto the internet by government law in the US and the UK) show this is not true

 "Today's teenager is tomorrow's potential regular customer." Philip Morris (Marlboro) memo

"If you are really and truly not going to sell to children, you are going to be out of business in 30 years." Bennett LeBow, Liggett Tobacco Co.

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We have been asked by our client to come up with a package design…that's attractive to kids." Advertising agency for Lorillard's

Legislation in New Zealand and worldwide has progressively restricted the advertising of tobacco products. However an industry which has already spent billions of dollars on marketing will continue to create new ways to promote their products. The current medium is the packet or the cigarette itself. 

Thus the next phase of tobacco legislation must restrict marketing through the package and cigarette. Standardised packaging has been required in Australia since 2012, and is being introduced in the UK., Ireland, France. 

Big Tobacco denies the common sense and science of this move and protests that standardised packaging will not decrease tobacco smoking but will increase illicit smuggling of cigarettes. The industry claims the pack design is only intended to influence brand preference and loyalty. Internal memos again directly contradict this, including those of British American Tobacco (BAT) the leading manufacturer of cigarettes sold in NZ.

BAT communications state: "In a future where increasingly the product may have to sell itself through the pack, a fuller understanding of the way in which perception of such packs affects perception of their contents is desirable." 

 "It is felt that given the consequences of a total ban on advertising, a pack should be designed to give the product visual impact as well as brand imagery."

A report commissioned by another tobacco company stated:

"The primary job of the package is to create a desire to purchase and try. To do this, it must look new and different enough to attract the attention of the consumer."

But the most stunning evidence for the effect of the packaging on cigarette sales has come from direct, aggressive actions of the tobacco industry against Australia's plain packaging legislation. 

The Australian High Court overturned one challenge directed at the constitutionality of the law. At the same time Philip Morris Asia issued an Investor-State Dispute challenge to the Australian government, which demanded repealing the law or paying billions of dollars of lost revenue. This was overturned (after three years of very expensive proceedings) on a technicality. 

Still to be heard are claims from several countries, with legal support from the tobacco industry, through the World Trade Organisation.

The sudden very militant turn in attitude comes at a time when the tobacco industry has otherwise been trying to demonstrate a very soft-spoken approach, Corporate Social Responsibility, as it is called. The industry is stating publicly on one hand that packaging is not marketing their product to increase sales, but on the other hand that if governments legislate for standardised packaging that they will sue for lost sales revenue. The legal challenges indicate how strongly the industry links the packaging with sales. 

The real evidence from Australia is that the legislation in 2012 has made a substantial difference to tobacco consumption without increasing illicit smuggling, remarkable when cigarette smoking is now considered the most addictive drug habit.

Recent figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that total consumption of tobacco and cigarettes in the first quarter of 2014 was the lowest ever recorded.

This is sufficient evidence to move ahead rapidly with standardised packaging in working towards a Smokefree Aotearoa by 2025.

Philip Pattemore, an associate professor of paediatrics at the University of Otago, Christchurch, and paediatric specialist at Christchurch Hospital, writes on behalf of Smokefree Canterbury.

 - Stuff

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