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Pat Harrold on why Ireland is forging ahead with plain packaging for cigarettes

20 Nov, 13 | by BMJ

pat_harroldWe Irish are good at many things. We are world leaders in literature, music and, occasionally, rugby. Lately we have become famous for tobacco control. Ireland became the first country in the world to ban smoking in public places after some groundbreaking research into the health of Galway bar staff. We are now set to become one of the first countries to ban tobacco branding. This means that the box of twenty will have a plain cover and you can only tell the different types by the lettering. The boxes will look generic, rather like the government products in the old Soviet Union. They will be sombre.

I have made the transformation from an enthusiastic smoker to an even more enthusiastic non smoker and I have to say I welcome this strategy. It is not only the cigarette that is branded, it is also the smoker.

When I started smoking at school I first bought a box of ten cigarettes. The box was wonderfully exotic. It reeked of quality and even had a Royal Seal. The smelly smoky reality was offset by the gorgeous box which I could produce with élan. As I progressed I bought boxes of twenty in a dull green packet. These were the working man’s fag. Tough guys smoked these—they were down to earth, no nonsense. When I pulled out that packet I was one of the lads. I was branded as surely as  by my denim jacket, my long hair, my heavy metal albums under the arm as one of a type.

In college the heavy metal and the cigarettes changed. I knocked around with the drama society and we all smoked a milder cigarette in a fancy box. When I worked in hospitals my peers and I smoked the mildest cigarette you could find as if an apology for smoking at all.

When you produce a box of cigarettes it tells the other smokers what kind of smoker you are. There is very little price difference between the cheapest and the most expensive. There is not much difference in taste either, as I recall. There is a huge difference in how smokers see themselves in their pretensions, identity, and aspirations. The companies know this in their campaigns to sell smokers as cowboys or racing drivers. A plain white box with a government warning doesn’t say very much about you and might just be the trick to stop people smoking. Maybe the idea could be extended to fast food and alcohol.

Competing interests: I declare that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I have no relevant interests to declare.

Pat Harrold is a general practitioner in Co Tipperary Ireland and a lecturer in University of Limerick medical school.

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  • FergusReturns

    “The boxes will look generic, rather like the government products in the old Soviet Union.”

    Most of us haven’t forgotten that the Soviet Union collapsed in the wreckage of its own incompetent, authoritarian bullying after murdering close to 50 million people. Your choice of examples to emulate is… not reassuring.

  • roddy campbell

    ‘Maybe the idea could be extended to fast food and alcohol.’

    Or maybe not.

  • Ivan_Denisovich

    I believe that Ireland is also quite famous for brewing a remarkably popular stout and distilling a world famous whiskey. Removing the Guinness logo and hiding that beautiful looking drink inside an olive drab glass or selling Jameson in bottles covered in pictures of diseased livers might dent a few dreams and put a few drinkers off, but I am not sure that the majority of people would welcome such state interference. The Irish economy might not either.

    Personally I would prefer a world in which what I choose to consume was not packaged according to the whims of narrow minded medics and activists who embrace both the output and the ethos of the former Soviet Union. Thank you for confirming that the ambitions of such people extend beyond tobacco and thereby further exposing a myth propagated by the tobacco control industry.

  • Ronan Thomas Kavanagh

    Glad to see you’ve given them up. Delighted to see you writing so well about it too.

  • Ian B

    Come to that, you’d better stop pubs branding themselves too. No jolly names, no nicely painted signs. Come to that, no comfortable olde-worlde decor, it only encourages people. A plain room with hard benches perhaps, and no music, and come to that, better turn off the heating too. Might make people want to go there. And no friendly bar staff, using their pleasant attitude to trick people into drinking poisonous evil alcohol.

    Same for restaurants of course. People might get fat if they like eating out. And why stop there?

    I went around a supermarket yesterday and it was full of evil branding. They were actively trying to make me buy cheese, which is bad for you, loads of brands, better get rid of that. Just “cheese” (one type) on a white packet. Hmm, kids may see it. Better hide it in a cabinet behind a door. Cakes? Cakes, oh my, so many cakes. Hide them too.

    Maybe you should have to register with the State for a cake licence, then you get a plain sponge with “cake” stamped on it, accompanied by a stern lecture by a doctor. If you want cheese-cake, forget it. Two sins in one. Better ban that altogether.

    “Like in the Soviet Union”? No, even they weren’t as mad as the public health movement.

  • Ivan_Denisovich

    Writing so well? Are we to take it that Irish medics collectively favor soviet style authoritarianism and would like to see the end of the Guinness logo? Reilly is bad enough but at least he advertises his political intent.

  • Liam Tedderes

    Hi Pat,
    I’m surprised that “the rollies” didn’t get a mention in your acticle on smoking. Unless my memory fails me, I remember you with packets of “roll your own”. Can’t remember the exact brand, probably “Old Holborn”. All the best from an ex-patient and a contemporary in UCG.

  • Annette Neary

    Surely the point is that the packets are what is reminiscent of the USSR – and given how many people have been killed by tobacco products, the comparison is apt…

  • David Marks

    A new study proves Pat Harrold’s point: “The cigarette box as an advertising vehicle in the United Kingdom: A case for plain packaging” http://bit.ly/1boGD7w

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