Comment: Big Tobacco’s victory over plain packaging will get more teens hooked

By Andy Lloyd

Like a lot of people working in public health the coverage the government is about to shelve plain, standardised packaging comes as a major disappointment.

Kids are attracted to glossy tobacco packs. While no intervention is a silver bullet, the evidence that putting cigarettes in dark greeny-brown boxes with larger health warnings would help deter children was detailed and compelling.

You just have to show children and young people the type of standardised packs in Australia to see them recoil. It goes without saying they are less mysterious, sophisticated, enticing and alluring than the gorgeous, glossy, high fashion sticks that are promoted as fashion accessories.  Gone would be the slims, sleek logos and the purple pink hues, that say "come on in".

For smokers (including my former self) who clung to a low tar, silver or lights brand in the hope it was somehow healthier, it would also remove one of the tobacco industry's great, last remaining deceptions. As one young person we spoke to put it in horrifying terms: "if they're less harmful, you can smoke twice as many."

While Big Tobacco denies its brands are there to do anything other than differentiate products to adult smokers and starting to smoke is an adult choice, the truth shows otherwise.

Figures from Cancer Research UK reveal 207,000 UK children start smoking every year. A survey of smokers in our native North East found the average age for starting was just 15. Half of these mums, dads, grandparents, sons and daughters will die from it unless they quit. Every day doctors see the impact of gift wrapping an addictive, poisonous product on lungs, hearts, stomachs, arteries and other vital organs.

While the 'nanny state' is often the cry of Big Tobacco's paid front groups it's important to stress the massive public support for doing more to stop children from smoking.

This is the aim of changing the packs, whether or not it changes the mind of one smoker or a million. Just three percent of people in the North East strongly oppose standardised packaging compared to the 21% of adults who smoke. Do the maths. Ask any smoker if they want their children to start.

Big Tobacco has put up its biggest fight yet as it fears other markets would follow suit, hence we've seen PR agencies paid to lobby councils, suspect statistics dripped to regional newspapers about the 'out of control illegal tobacco market' (which bear no resemblance to official statistics showing illegal tobacco is on the decline).

We've also seen a £2 million advertising campaign in which adverts placed by Big Tobacco have afterwards been banned as misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The industry has also been keen to propagate the myth the boxes would be white and plain.

How ironic that on the same day stories were announcing the death of plain packaging, one tobacco multinational known for its 'Glide Tec' and 'Fresh Burst' brands was trumpeting its new range in the retail press "with a bold, modern logo and new pack variant communication" and "a fresh, contemporary design with enhanced appeal."

Which is why if you want to really know what the industry thinks of branding and their packaging, you need to look into the archives and read some of the Legacy documents from the USA which reveal how its promotional techniques really work.

This collection of documents was obtained during legal settlements brought by US States for the cost of tobacco related healthcare. As one document from Philip Morris's Hall of Shame wrote: "It is important to know as much as possible about teenage smoking patterns and attitudes. Today's teenager is tomorrow's potential regular customer, and the overwhelming majority of smokers first begin to smoke while still in their teens…"

There is still an expectancy that the right thing will be done. It is just a matter of time.

Andy Lloyd is media, communications and social marketing manager for Fresh.

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