BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 12:37 UK

Would you buy Brand X cigarettes?

Graphic (BBC and Jupiter Images)

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Bans on lighting up indoors, tobacco advertising stopped, under-the-counter sales, the war against smoking goes further every year. But could plain, white packets be the nuclear option against the industry?

Marketing cigarettes used to be a lot easier. There were brands that were smooth, ones that were tasty, while others made you attractive to women, or men.

You were "never alone with a Strand". Kools were "as cool and as clean as a breath of fresh air". Camels were even sold on the basis that doctors smoked them.

When you think of someone who smokes Benson and Hedges or Marlboro, there are very different images - the sophisticate versus the cowboy
Becky Freeman
University of Sydney

Now, in the UK and many other jurisdictions, cigarette advertising is largely banned.

From tomorrow, it will be a legal requirement for all packs of cigarettes to carry a graphic health warning, showing such images as diseased lungs and deeply yellowed teeth.

And on 12 October, the government's health bill could bring in a ban on tobacco displays in newsagents and other shops in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Similar plans are going through the Scottish Parliament.

But the anti-smoking lobby is not satisfied. They want the nuclear option. They want "plain packaging".

Brand images

Recall all the famous brands and their liveries, the purple of Silk Cut, the red of Marlboro, the gold of Benson & Hedges and the two tone red stripe of Embassy.

Now imagine them all in plain white packets with the name of the cigarettes in a standardised font... and a prominent health warning of course.

Image of diseased lung
All packs now have to carry graphic images of tobacco-related conditions

It would reduce smoking by stopping people having brand attachment, says Sydney University's Becky Freeman, co-author of The Case for the Plain Packaging of Tobacco Products.

"When you think of someone who smokes Benson and Hedges or Marlboro, there are very different images - the sophisticate versus the cowboy. Take that away and you don't have people expressing identity through cigarette brands."

The drive to plain packaging was started by anti-smoking activists in Canada in the 1990s, but it hasn't been enacted by any government. Ms Freeman is still optimistic.

"It is just a matter of time before one country does it, then it will be like dominoes."

The British anti-tobacco group Ash is also in favour of the move.

Pastel colours

"It would draw attention more to the health warnings rather than being distracted by the branding," says Amanda Sandford, research manager.

What particularly concerns the anti-smoking groups is the use of subtle cues in cigarette branding. After the EU banned the use of such terms as "light" and "low tar", because they wrongly suggest some cigarettes are less harmful than others, consumers continued to identify these "qualities" through associations such as silver and pastel coloured packets.

Cigarette advert from 1955
Once upon a time cigarette adverts espoused their positive qualities

"The research on the existing packaging shows that this is really the last route tobacco companies can use to promote their brands to the consumers," says Ms Sandford. "Now we have an advertising ban there is no doubt the industry is using the packets themselves to promote the brand. The packs give out certain messages."

The tobacco industry vehemently opposes the idea of plain packaging.

One unintended consequence would be a rise in smuggling and potentially harmful counterfeit cigarettes in the market, says Catherine Armstrong, of British American Tobacco.

"At the moment they have to go to a lot of trouble to make the cigarettes look like the brands."

The measure would also be likely to be the subject of legal challenges from tobacco firms, as the packaging design represents part of their intellectual property. The anti-smoking advocates say their legal advice suggests otherwise.

Government opposition

"Cigarettes are still a legal item which can be sold. People have a right to make a choice of brand," says Ms Armstrong.

There is no evidence that plain packaging would cut smoking among the young, says Ms Armstrong.

The public health minister Gillian Merron has indicated that the government is not in favour of plain packaging.

Recent years have seen a wave of anti-smoking measures

She recently told the Commons: "No studies have been undertaken to show that plain packaging of tobacco would cut smoking uptake among young people or enable those who want to quit to do so."

So, the clause on plain packaging added while the bill was in the House of Lords may fail. And, according to Ms Armstrong, the tobacco industry is not quaking with fear about a wave of plain packaging legislation.

But anti-smoking activists think otherwise.

"The tobacco companies themselves are screaming," says Ms Freeman. "They are putting their ducks in a row to combat it."

And indeed, the agenda for the upcoming tobacco trade show Tab Info Asia 2009, seems to suggest there is concern in the industry.

One workshop is described as "John Luik challenges you, working in teams, to come up with ingenious ways of operating in an increasingly regulated, plain-pack, dark market environment".

And tobacco firms have responded in ingenious ways in the past to restrictions. When firms in the UK were no longer allowed positive messages in adverts, they turned it to their advantage. The slashed purple silk of Silk Cut and the oddly-placed gold packets of Benson & Hedges are two of the best-known advertising campaigns ever.

Viral marketing

Iain Ellwood, head of consulting at Interbrand, say further restrictions like plain packs could even play into the hands of the tobacco firms.

"The current trend is for word of mouth campaigning, social media and viral marketing.

"There is a potential short term blip in debranding the packs. Having these bland, basic packs might be soon as cool."

Of course, the firms may fear maintaining separate brand identities will be hard to maintain in the long term.

"If you lose all of that they can't navigate your offer quite as well so less likely to buy," says Mr Ellwood.

The drive to plain packaging is part of the "denormalisation" of smoking, says Simon Clark of smoking rights pressure group Forest.

"It is a form of commercial censorship. No other product comes in plain white packaging. For some people it will make smoking slightly illicit. It will make smoking cool again."

Here is a selection of your comments.

It just goes to show there is no limit to the steps that a small group of obsessives will take to persecute smokers. I'm fully expecting to be called soon to apply for my smokers licence, cigarette ration book and 'smoker' tattoo to be applied to my forehead. Listen carefully - I know the risks, life is a risk, we all die one day. Get over it, and move on.

Road traffic deaths are a major cause of early death in the UK - so lets make all cars painted white with pictures of car crashes on. Have adverts for them banned and all information about fuel consumption and safety censored. Fatty foods are a major cause of early death in the UK - lets make burger bars sell their burgers in white boxes with gory pictures of clogged arteries on. Have adverts for them banned and demand they are hidden from shop display and censor any information about calories and fat.
Bob Smith, Reading, UK

As a smoker I can assure you that I was not so feeble minded as to be lured into smoking by pretty packaging, nicotine is the addiction and it was considered cool to smoke (all the adverts said so) when I began. If the government is so concerned about public health why not go all out and impose a total prohibition throughout the British Isles? This of course could never and would never be contemplated by the government because the revenue lost in taxes would be tremendous.
Teresa Hewitson, Ashington, Northumberland

I'm not a smoker, I quit several years ago, but frankly this war on smoke is getting a little out of hand. firstly the smoking of tobacco products is perfectly legal in this country. Therefore it is completely unjustifiable to attempt to tell someone where and when they can do it. This would impact on the civil liberties of the aforementioned smoker. Vices (of all legal natures) are a huge source of income for the UK government, and I feel they are trying to have it both ways, they want the tax revenue but they also want to be seen as progressive health aware thinkers. IT is my view that you cannot be both, either smoking is ok or it isn't. The government has no right to dictate the things we can legally do in this country.
Mike, Worcester

I do not think this is a good idea, if all cigarettes came in identical packaging it wouldn't make me stop smoking. I also think that taking brand loyalty out of the equation will cause a price war between the tobacco companies. I would no longer go and ask for a specific brand but for the cheapest. This would cause the price of cigarettes to plummet and young people would by them because they are so cheap. Sorry ASH i think your shooting yourself in the foot here!
Dave, Glasgow, Scotland

I am a smoker however I welcome the day where there is an outright ban on tobacco products in the UK. It is high time that the government banned tobacco in all forms because unlike alcohol there is no safe limit in terms of consumption I have myself health related issues caused by smoking.
John Baetke, Guildford

Tar black with the word "CANCER" in big black letters front and rear will do it. Can't we have a campaign where we all squirt vile perfume over smokers. Why should they have the monopoly of stinking the place out and making us stink too?
MadMole, London

Maybe it would help if cigarettes and tobacco were sold only in chemists / pharmacies, where health professionals were on hand to offer advice and guidance for those who wanted to reduce or quit their habit? This would also help reduce the chances for underage smokers to purchase them.
Jai Gomer, Wales, UK

As a founding member of Lesmahagow & Area Community First Responders, I can argue the case against the smoking world. We are a group of volunteers who are trained (just like paramedics) to respond to 999 medical emergencies, where in so many cases smoking is the root cause of our public's issues.

Eradicating the advertising of tobacco will reduce these calls out full stop, and help improve the health of our small village, giving us, the Community First Responders, more time to spend with our loved ones, instead of attending these "smoking related" call outs. I believe taking branding off cigarettes and cigars will help towards this target, but, as a smoker myself, I will not change my own habits.
Kevin Avis, Lesmahagow

The most iconic cigarette branding was the black and gold of the JPSs (as used on the packets and on the Lotus F1 cars), followed closely by the red and white of Marlboro (as used on the old McLaren F1 cars). Even now, 30 years later, they're instantly recognisable, so it must be the case that cigarette branding has an impact. However, as a non-smoker, I'm not sure that reducing packaging to all white will reduce smoking - it'll just mean that people buy the cheapest brand, sparking off a price-war.
Bryn Roberts, Richmond, Yorkshire, UK

Perhaps all cars could be "unbranded" as well. I do not know of ANY car that does not pollute on a much larger basis than a cigarette or 20. Banning smoking found a... saving of lives. Banning vehicle pollution may save a lot more. Those who rant on the anti-smoking campaign should also set the agenda by giving up their car.
Kelly, Durham UK

"One unintended consequence would be a rise in smuggling and potentially harmful counterfeit cigarettes in the market, says Catherine Armstrong, of British American Tobacco."

As opposed to the perfectly harmless cigarettes currently on the market!
Tony Bell, Warrington, UK

Great news. I wont get jeered at for smoking the cheapest cigarettes I can found now. As long as the brand name is printed on the pack, bring it on.
Steve N, Birmingham, UK

I'm sixteen years old and I smoke. Personally, the packaging of a certain brand of cigarettes would not deter me from buying them. I don't like brands such as Lambert and Butler or JSP as I don't like the taste. I smoke Marlborough lights because I enjoy the taste. Maybe for others it is a case of looking good with a certain brand of cigarettes in their hands, but I do not think that it would have an impact as much as hoped.
Megan, York

Anyone else remember those almost plain black and almost plain white packs called Death and Death Light? They were great and for the short time they were available I reckon they must have been one of the most successful brands on the market. This is exactly what'll happen with this half-baked idea. Pete, London

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