While the UK calls for more evidence, new Australian study shows cigarette plain packaging works

Plain cigarette packaging works: study

By Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation and Alexia Attwood, The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

Plain packaging on tobacco products is associated with lower smoking appeal, greater support for the policy and a higher urgency to quit among adult smokers, a new study has found.

Since last year, cigarettes in Australia are sold in unbranded packets that feature a larger graphic health warning with new information messages and confronting images. AAP Image/Department of Health and Ageing

The study, conducted by Victorian researchers and published in the BMJ, is the first to examine how plain packaging affects smokers thoughts in practice following the roll-out of plain packaging laws in Australia in late 2012. Previous studies have only looked at simulated plain packs.

Australia was the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging laws. The UK had considered following suit but has reportedly shelved plans to do so.

The researchers surveyed 536 cigarette smokers with a usual brand, of whom 72.3% were smoking from a plain pack and 27.7% were smoking from a branded pack. The participants were based in Victoria and surveyed by phone between November 1 and December 3 2012.

“Compared with branded pack smokers, those smoking from plain packs perceived their cigarettes to be lower in quality, tended to perceive their cigarettes as less satisfying than a year ago, were more likely to have thought about quitting at least once a day in the past week and to rate quitting as a higher priority in their lives. Plain pack smokers were more likely to support the policy than branded pack smokers,” the researchers said in their paper.

“Given that Australia is the first nation to implement plain packaging, our study provides an early investigation of its actual effects on smokers in a market where plain packs are available to all.”

At the time the survey was conducted, some smokers were still able to purchase branded packs. The researchers acknowledged that “those less interested in quitting may have been more likely to avoid the plain packs” but said they adjusted their results to account for this factor.

No surprise

Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney and a vocal proponent of plain packaging laws, said “every consumer goods manufacturer knows that packaging and price are front and centre of the appeal of products.”

“Think of your own behaviour when you stand facing a wall of different wine within your price range and why you select the bottle you do. Massive research goes into maximising the appeal of the look of cigarette packs, like all products. They cue expectations and tobacco industry internal research has long shown that many smokers cannot discern even their own brand in blinded tests,” he said.

“So it is no surprise that our plain packaging is producing negative findings for the tobacco industry. They would have known this was coming.”

Paul Harrison, a Senior lecturer at Deakin University’s Graduate School of Business who has previously written on the topic of plain packaging, said the new research “presents itself as a good study.”

“In terms of findings, it’s something I would have predicted as well. The one thing I have said previously [is that] these kind of changes will not see dramatic instant change in behaviour,” he said,

“We will see incremental shifts in it being easier to not be a smoker than it is to be a smoker. And these are the aims of all these types of programs.”

Dr Harrison said he expected the tobacco industry to dispute the study’s findings.

“I think what we will see in practice is the cigarette lobby, including all the companies funded by cigarette companies, who will say things like: it’s a small sample, they will say no dramatic changes, they will say it is not effective,” he said.

“In terms of it being used in practice, I think the health authorities can feel the change to plain packs is a good step and, internationally, legislatures and governments that are interested in the health of the community should look at the study and say this is something worth doing.”

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