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Smokers find ‘plain-pack’ cigarettes less satisfying, Australia finds

Plain cigarette packaging

Last December, Australia became the first country to require that cigarettes be sold in plain brown packaging. Under the new law, the brand name of the cigarettes can remain on the front of the packs (in uniform lettering), but all colorful logos and graphics must be removed.

The new packs are also required to contain health warnings over 75 percent of their front covers.

The purpose of the plain-packaging law is to reduce the attractiveness and appeal of cigarettes and to make the health warnings even more prominent. (Australia had previously required that such warnings cover only 30 percent of each pack.)

The tobacco industry lobbied hard against the change, arguing that plain packaging wouldn’t make any difference in people’s smoking habits but would increase the black-market sales of cigarettes.

Of course, what tobacco companies were really concerned about was losing customers. And apparently they had good cause to worry. For early findings from Australia, published Monday in the open-access journal BMJ Open, suggest that smokers find cigarettes sold in plain packs less satisfying.

The new packaging also appears to get smokers to think more often about quitting.

The findings support earlier anecdotal complaints from Australia’s smokers, who had been flooding social media sites with comments about how the plain-pack cigarettes tasted “pathetic,”  “sickening,” and “disgusting.”  Some people even saw a conspiracy, charging the tobacco companies and/or the Australian government with substituting cheaper cigarettes for the old “better tasting” branded cigarettes.

Perceived poorer quality

For the study, researchers interviewed 525 Australian smokers in late November and early December, just before and after the new law was implemented. Most of those smokers (72.3 percent) had already started smoking cigarettes from plain packs, which had begun to appear in retail outlets in October. The others (27.7 percent) were still using branded packs.

The survey revealed that, compared with the branded-pack smokers, the smokers using the plain packs were 66 percent more likely to think their cigarettes were of poorer quality than a year earlier. They were also 70 percent more likely to say they found the plain-package cigarettes less satisfying.

The survey also found that plain-pack smokers were 81 percent more likely to report that they had had thoughts about quitting at least once a day during the previous week. They also rated quitting a higher priority in their lives compared to the branded-pack smokers.

There was no statistically significant difference, however, between the two groups of smokers in how often they reported thinking about the harms of cigarettes.

In other words, the drabness of the packaging seemed to have more of an effect on their attitudes about smoking and quitting than the larger warning labels.

“Overall,” the study’s authors concluded, “the introductory effects we observed are consistent with the broad objectives of the plain packaging legislation.”

Not surprised

Robert Moffitt, a spokesperson for the American Lung Association in Minnesota, wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings.

“Plain or generic packaging (think “Brand X”) has long been associated with less expensive goods, and by association, poorer quality products,” he stated in an e-mail correspondence with MinnPost. “It’s not surprising that smokers would feel the same about plainly-packaged cigarettes.”

His organization hasn’t taken a position on plain packaging, he explained, but it does “closely watch what was worked in other countries to reduce tobacco use.”

“We have long been strong supporters of stronger warnings and graphic images, which have been successful elsewhere in the world,” he added.

Coming to more countries

New Zealand and Ireland will soon follow Australia’s lead and require that all cigarettes sold in their countries be plainly packaged. Great Britain was considering a similar policy, but Prime Minister David Cameron’s health secretary shelved the idea earlier this month.

That decision was highly controversial, particularly after it was suggested in the British press that the decision may have been influenced by an election strategist for Cameron’s Conservative Party whose lobbying company also represents Big Tobacco.

It’s unlikely that plain packaging of cigarettes is going to be introduced any time soon in the United States, however. There’s very little political will to implement such a policy, particularly as any restrictions on cigarette packaging are being aggressively opposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an ultra-conservative lobbying group that receives substantial funding from the tobacco industry.

Nor is ALEC confining its anti-plain-packaging efforts to the U.S.

“ALEC, which proclaims its ‘belief in the power of free markets and limited government to propel economic growth,’ has warned countries looking to impose plain packaging that they will be violating intellectual property provisions laid down by the World Trade Organisation, opening themselves to legal challenges,” reported Jamie Doward in the British newspaper “The Observer” last week.

Tobacco kills nearly 6 million people in the world each year, according to the World Health Organization. In Minnesota, the annual death toll from tobacco is 5,500.

You can download and read the Australian study on the BMJ Open website.

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