New plain packaging research – experts respond

As New Zealand deliberates over the introduction of ‘plain packaging’ for cigarettes, a new study confirms that such measures reduce the appeal of tobacco products.
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Scientists from Canada, the US, and Brazil have conducted a study of 640 young Brazilian women to determine if cigarettes had the same appeal when presented in plain packaging.

The research was published in BMC Public Health today.

Dr David Hammond from the University of Waterloo, Canada, who led the study explained, “The women in this study rated branded packs as more appealing, more stylish and sophisticated than the plain packs. They also thought that cigarettes in branded packs would be better tasting and smoother. Removal of all description from the packs, leaving only the brand, further reduced their appeal. In the pack offer test, participants were three times more likely to choose the branded pack as a free gift.”

The results from this study, the first to look at the effect of plain cigarette packaging on smoking in Latin America, backs up a wealth of similar research carried out in other countries (including New Zealand), which has found that plain packaging makes cigarettes less appealing to young people.

The SMC contacted New Zealand experts for comment on the research. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact an expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz).

Professor Alistair Woodward, Head of School of Population Health, University of Auckland, comments:

“The findings from the Brazil study fit with what has been observed elsewhere. Tobacco packaging affects the opinions and behaviours of smokers. Many controlled studies of the kind carried out in Brazil have demonstrated this. The tobacco industry knows very well the value of brand packaging. This is why they have invested so heavily in design and illustration in the past, and why the industry now opposes plain packaging so vehemently.”     

Prof Janet Hoek, Department of Marketing, University of Otago, comments:   

“This paper on plain packaging adds to the growing evidence base supporting this measure.  The authors begin by outlining how vitally important packaging is to the tobacco industry and document important evidence that New Zealand officials should review as they consider whether to recommend adoption of plain packaging. Specifically, White et al. document how packaging communicates desirable attributes, such as smoking and femininity, glamour, and thinness, while simultaneously deflecting attention from health warnings. Further, they note how tobacco companies have used colours, particularly white and silver, to convey impressions of reduced-harm products, thus deceptively minimising the myriad risks smoking poses.

“White et al.‘s findings show that respondents evaluate branded packs as significantly more attractive than both unbranded (plain) packs and unbranded packs featuring descriptor information. This finding reinforces earlier studies that show removing brand imagery greatly reduces the perceived appeal of tobacco packages. Interestingly, the wholly plain packs were significantly less attractive than plain packs providing details of descriptors; this finding suggests participants found any brand-related information appealing and highlights the importance of removing all details from packaging.  The pack shape was also clearly an important influence; participants generally found the ‘lipstick’ shaped packs containing ‘superslim’ cigarettes more appealing, even when these had little or no brand imagery or information.

“The importance of brand information was also evident in responses to perceived taste and ‘smoothness’ attributes: packs with taste related descriptors such as menthol, strawberry, or sweet melon were significantly more likely to be associated with ‘better taste’ and ‘smoothness’ than packs that had no taste-related descriptors.  Again, this finding highlights the importance of removing all marketing imagery, including descriptors, from tobacco packaging.

“Responses to the different levels of branding varied less with respect to perceived risk; this finding, which is not consistent with earlier studies showing a progressive increase in risk association as brand elements are removed, may have arisen because none of the packs actually showed warning imagery. As the authors noted, this is consistent with the appearance of Brazilian packs (where warnings appear on the back of pack). Other studies where the stimuli did feature front-of-pack warnings have shown the expected increase in perceived risk as brand elements are progressively removed; these studies point to the importance of featuring large warnings on the front of pack surfaces.

“Overall, this study reinforces earlier work showing how plain packaging will reduce perceptions of smoking and diminish the benefits smoking is perceived to deliver.  New Zealand studies (available on request) also illustrate the powerful effect on-pack branding has on smokers’ (and non-smokers’) perceptions. In addition, New Zealand research has found that plain packaging not only affects smokers’ perceptions, but influences their choice behaviours (significantly fewer select ‘plain’ packages) and likelihood of making a quit attempt (significantly higher following exposure to plain packaging).”