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Opinion | Plain packaging will work – that’s why tobacco companies oppose it

Predictably, the big tobacco companies are vehemently opposed to plain packaging proposals. However, among the litany of tobacco company complaints and invocations of doom, there is a familiar lack of evidence and a heavy reliance on illogical reasoning.

The idea that, as Imperial Tobacco puts it: “smoking is a matter of choice for people who understand the risks” would be laughable if the consequences were not so devastating. Very few smokers fully understand the risks of smoking when they start; few can name the specific risks they face, even fewer know what being victim to those risks would be like, and virtually none know the prognosis facing those who suffer from diseases caused by smoking. Truly informed choice means smokers would fully understand and accept these risks when they begin to smoke, and they would how addictive nicotine is. However, many smokers start smoking and become severely addicted when they are only teenagers; once addicted to nicotine, they have little or no choice.

Tobacco companies have disputed every known link from tobacco to disease and fought against every measure that would increase knowledge of those diseases. When smokers have tried to hold them to account, they have blamed smokers for knowingly becoming addicted to a product that will kill half of them prematurely. Opposition to plain packaging is just the latest example of the tobacco industry’s deceit and amoral determination to profit from peddling a highly addictive and dangerous drug to young people who do not realise the consequences until it is very hard to quit.

Let’s not forget where the tobacco companies’ real interests lie: in recruiting the next generation of smokers to maintain their sales and profits.

Imperial Tobacco claims there’s no “real world evidence” about the effectiveness of plain packaging. This is the same tired response that the tobacco industry made to tobacco tax increases, smokefree workplaces, mass media campaigns, graphic health warnings, and other measures that have successfully reduced smoking rates in New Zealand and abroad. In fact, we have strong evidence that plain packaging decreases the attractiveness of tobacco products, exposes tobacco for the lethal toxin it is, and reduces the likelihood young people would experiment with it. This is why the Australian government is introducing plain packaging and why New Zealand Health Ministers Turia and Ryall have stated they plan to follow suit.

There is strong support among New Zealanders for plain packaging. Even in 2008, well before the current debate over plain packaging commenced, New Zealanders wanted to see this measure in place. Data from the national 2008 Health and Lifestyles Survey, conducted by the National Research Bureau, found 53% agreed that ‘Tobacco companies should not be allowed to promote cigarettes by having different brand names and packaging’ while only 23% disagreed (24% neither agreed nor disagreed).

Plain packaging is based on the same marketing principles the tobacco industry has so successfully used to create generations of addicted smokers.

First, visibility is everything in marketing. (After all, that’s why tobacco companies fought so hard against the removal of retail tobacco displays).

Second, brand images and personalities – the attributes and values people associate with different brands – matter to consumers. That’s why tobacco companies spend millions researching the designs used in their packaging, and why they invest heavily in on-going updates of these. Industry documents released during US litigation show just how carefully packs are crafted to appeal to youth – the very people tobacco companies would have us believe they didn’t want to smoke.

Plain packaging is a measured and proportionate response to the tobacco industry’s on-going marketing of a deadly addiction. By removing alluring branding, with all its promises of glamour, sophistication or ruggedness, plain packaging reveals tobacco for what it is – an unattractive, addictive and lethal poison.

As a country, New Zealand pledged to eliminate tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship when it ratified the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Plain packaging acts on that pledge.

Plain packaging would not prevent tobacco companies from placing brand names on their products, so there is no reduction in any “right to free expression” to which they have persuaded themselves they are entitled. Furthermore, there is no evidence at all the government is considering plain packaging for other products. Tobacco is a uniquely harmful product; the government has rightly recognised this and is acting to protect future generations of New Zealanders.

Tobacco is the only product that kills half of its users when used as intended and which relies for its continued existence on recruiting new users, most of whom are too young to understand the consequences of smoking. Nearly all will come to regret smoking (over 80% of current smokers already do) but by then will find it very hard to stop. No government can ignore the deaths and associated misery that tobacco causes.

Plain packaging is just another step along the road to ridding New Zealand of this scourge and achieving a smokefree New Zealand by 2025.

Janet Hoek, Philip Gendall, Richard Edwards, Ninya Maubach, Rob McGee, George Thomson, Chris Cunningham, Heather Gifford, Richard Jaine.

ASPIRE2025, representing researchers from the University of Otago, Massey University and Whakauae Research for Māori Health and Development.

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