Could plain packaging for cigarettes help Canadians quit smoking?

In this March 18, 2013 file photo cigarette packs are displayed for sale at a convenience store in New York. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file

TORONTO – Would Canadian smokers be dissuaded from lighting up if cigarettes were packed in bland brown packets slapped with health warnings instead of sleek, shiny branding?

An Australian law that forced the tobacco industry to scale back its branding and marketing of cigarette packages seems to be helping smokers consider quitting, new research suggests. Without branding, plain packaged cigarettes seem less satisfying to smokers.

Last December, Australia formally introduced new plain packaging legislation so that all cigarette boxes would be uniform in a brown packet with simple font naming the brand. About 75 per cent of the front of pack is covered in a health warning along with 90 per cent of the back.

Australia is the first to implement the law, dubbed the strictest in the world, but other countries – so far, New Zealand and Ireland – plan to follow suit.

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The Canadian Cancer Society told Global News the policy is “imminent” in Canada, and that it would help in making smokers think twice when buying a pack.

“What Australia has done for requiring plain packaging is historic. It’s something that is inevitable in Canada and something we should implement as soon as possible,” the society’s senior policy analyst Rob Cunningham, said.

“The brand is at the core of the tobacco industry marketing. When you come right down to it, a cigarette is dried leaves and paper and why they’ve been able to make it so glamorous is through marketing,” Cunningham suggested.

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How plain packaging dissuaded smokers in Australia

The study, published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal and commissioned by the Cancer Society of Victoria, hoped to look at whether the policy helped smokers, even in its early stages. About 530 locals were interviewed in the lead-up to the new law and immediately after it was in place.

Seventy-two per cent of those surveyed were already smoking cigarettes from plain packs and the rest were using branded packs.

Results showed that plain-pack smokers were 66 per cent more likely to think their cigarettes were poorer quality than a year ago when they were in branded packs. Seventy per cent said they found smoking less satisfying.

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The plain packaging group was also 81 per cent more likely to have thought about quitting at least once a day.

As the date for legislation came closer, more of the sample was smoking from plain packs. In turn, even more smokers were dissatisfied with smoking.

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The researchers attribute this to stifling a “social contagion” – stripped of its branding, smoking seemed to lose its appeal.

“The brand is able to convey masculinity, femininity, status, sophistication – the social appeal,” Cunningham said.

Slowly, health officials have chipped away at cigarette package labelling, though.

Health warnings on cigarette labels in Canada

In Canada, the first voluntary warning was on the side of packages in 1972. By 1989, it was mandatory for packets to have a health warning that covered 20 per cent of the package. Marketers had a loophole, though – the warnings were camouflaged because they were written in the same colours as the branding.

By 1994, warnings covered 35 per cent of the front and back of cigarette packaging and the warnings had to be black and white. By 2001, Canada was the first country in the world to require picture warnings that wrapped around 50 per cent of the boxes.

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By June 2012, that was strengthened to 75 per cent of the cigarette package. Health Canada has its own 16 exterior warnings, eight interior warnings and another four warnings for packages’ side panels.

In the United States right now, the surgeon general’s warning is only on the side of cigarette packs.

Read more: Canadian study links secondhand smoke to childhood aggression

The British American Tobacco PLC suggests its own research shows no change in consumers.

“There has been no noticeable impact on legal tobacco sales in the first six months due to plain packaging, as smokers are still purchasing cigarettes just as they were before it was introduced,” BAT spokesman Scott McIntyre told Reuters.

The World Health Organization called Australia’s inaugural move a “memorable day” in the history of fighting tobacco.

“Plain packaging aims to reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products, increase the noticeability and effectiveness of mandated health warnings, and reduce the ability of retail packaging to mislead consumers about the harms of smoking,” WHO says on its website.

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It says that it’s closely monitoring the results of Australia’s new law. So are other countries: the United Kingdom, France, India, South Africa and the European Union are all waiting to see how Australia’s stringent measures will affect smoking rates before altering their policies.

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