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Op Ed | Package deal will save lives, plain and simple

Following its inquiry into the tobacco industry in 2010, the Māori Affairs Select Committee recommended that New Zealand should strive to become smokefree by 2025. The Government, recognising the health and financial burden tobacco causes to New Zealanders, agreed and confirmed the Smokefree 2025 goal as Government policy. We congratulate Ministers Turia and Ryall for their stewardship of this world-leading initiative.

Achieving a nation where smoking prevalence is close to zero, smoking is virtually never seen, and children are protected from tobacco will require strong, evidence-based policies. These policies need to achieve three key outcomes: they must greatly reduce the number of young people who take up smoking; they must encourage and support smokers to quit smoking, and they must ensure those who do quit remain smokefree.

In recently declaring its intention to require the plain packaging of tobacco products, the Government has recognised national and international research that supports removing the last vestige of tobacco marketing. Plain packaging will replace the attractive brand imagery that currently dominates pack surfaces with large warnings and unattractive colours.

This policy removes the cachet brand logos, symbols and colours create, and the connotations of ruggedness, glamour and sophistication that current tobacco packaging exudes. Bereft of its attractive branding, tobacco is exposed as the addictive and hazardous product that it is.

Tobacco companies oppose plain packaging, just as they have opposed every measure that would substantially limit the appeal of their products. The reason for their opposition is simple: they know plain packaging will make smoking less attractive, reduce the number of smokers, and decrease their profit margins.

Research findings from New Zealand and other countries clearly show that children and young adults find plain packages much less desirable than branded packs. These findings come from many sources including in-depth qualitative studies, surveys, experimental research, and ecological studies – and they consistently reach the same conclusion: plain packaging would expose smoking as a hazardous and unattractive behaviour. In the words of one New Zealand research participant: “It [smoking] looks so boring and … you sort of see the cigarette for what it is… They just look [like] very plain and filthy sorts of things”.

Re-casting smoking as unappealing rather than alluring will undermine decades of work by tobacco companies to appeal to young people, their most lucrative potential market. Internal tobacco industry documents now available reveal how tobacco companies tested and refined pack imagery to ensure it appealed to young people, and highlight the steps companies took to deter smokers from quitting.

These documents expose the hypocrisy of tobacco companies. The largest tobacco company operating in New Zealand, British American Tobacco, states on its website: ‘We believe that tobacco products should never be marketed to children’, yet opposes the very measures that would protect children from their deadly products.

Plain packaging will also see the introduction of larger and more noticeable health warnings. International research shows plain packaging promotes greater awareness and understanding of smoking’s risks because on-pack health warnings no longer have to compete with distracting brand imagery.

British American Tobacco (NZ) claim: “Our business is not about persuading people to smoke; it is about offering quality brands to adults informed of the risks associated with smoking, who have already taken the decision to smoke”. But if BAT and other tobacco companies wanted to ensure smokers knew the risks of smoking, they would embrace plain packaging as a measure that promotes this goal. Instead, they reject plain packaging because they know on-pack branding helps lure a new generation of smokers to their deadly products.

New Zealand surveys show that most smokers (over 80%) regret ever starting smoking. Many find quitting smoking difficult because they must resist nicotine cravings and the temptation to resume smoking. The research evidence suggests plain packaging would also support recent ex-smokers, who find the appeal of their former brand can evoke cravings that may trigger relapse. Removing branding and increasing the size and salience of warnings will reinforce quitters’ decision to become, and remain, smokefree.

Let’s make no mistake: packaging is marketing. Plain packaging is not about the mis-appropriation of trademarks or the seizure of intellectual property. It is instead a measure designed to protect children, promote health, and save lives.

New Zealand has signed the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and must ratify its provisions, which include the elimination of tobacco advertising and promotion. The research evidence is clear: plain packaging will remove one of the last advertising media available to tobacco companies and help bring about the Government’s Smokefree 2025 goal. The tobacco industry’s aggressive opposition to plain packaging confirms, if any confirmation was needed, that plain packaging will be effective in achieving this goal.

New Zealanders should treat the tobacco industry’s bluster with the scepticism it deserves. Claims by the US Chamber of Commerce that plain packaging is ‘ill-advised’ are reminiscent of the tactics previously used to dissuade New Zealand from becoming nuclear free. Today, our nuclear-free status is part of our national identity and we are rightly proud of our resolve to withstand attempts by big business with no concern for the health of New Zealanders to intimidate us.

In just over a decade, let us ensure we have shown similar resolve to adopt strong tobacco control policies and become a proud Smokefree nation.

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Written by Janet Hoek, Philip Gendall, Ninya Maubach, Richard Edwards, Nick Wilson, Julian Crane, George Thomson, Heather Gifford, Annie Ualesi. 

Published by The Dominion Post, 26 April 2012, page B5.