Controlling Tobacco with Horrible Pictures

The UK government is about to introduce legislation to require cigarettes to be sold in what is called standardised packaging. They claim this will discourage children from starting to smoke. Fine, but it’s rather a roundabout way of going about it. They’re saying, in effect, ‘Don’t buy this, it’s dangerous.’ Or are they trying to put people off buying cigarettes altogether? Then why not say so? If this is the case, the logical step would be to start the process of banning tobacco sales.

I’m no friend of the tobacco companies but it seems to me they have a point in that their right to display their brand images on the packages of their poisonous (but legal) products will be infringed. Already a large proportion of the pack is taken up with health warnings and horrible pictures. But from now on nearly all of the pack will be taken up with health warnings and horrible pictures and the name of the maker will be relegated to standard small type at the bottom of the front and at the underside of the pack. The background colour is described as Pantone 448C (a drab dark brown) but which I think could more accurately be called cow-shit green. So now, instead of smokers buying a pack of, say, Marlboro, L&M or Lucky Strike, they will be choosing between ‘Damages teeth and gums’, ‘Causes peripheral vascular disease’, ‘Causes blindness’, etc.

The anti-smoking charity, ASH, seems much pleased with this new law and on their current Briefing about it shows a video, put out by Cancer Research UK in April 2012, as evidence that standardised packaging works.

The video shows children, who appear to be aged between about seven and eleven, who are given empty cigarette packs to handle and comment on how they appear to them. This is a selection of what they say:

  • I like this one because it’s got red in it and red is my favourite colour
  • It reminds me of a Ferrari
  • It looks kind of like the sun
  • Is that a royal sign? It looks quite posh
  • It’s really bright colours and it would be quite fun to play with and it makes you happy just by looking at it
  • This one is actually quite pretty – Yeah, pink, pink, pink
  • The pictures actually look quite nice, like ice-cubes and mint
  • It makes you feel you’re in a wonderland of happiness

 The flim ends with the written statement:

Unbranding cigarette packs won’t stop everyone from smoking, but it will give millions of  kids one less reason to start.

Apart from the dubious ethics of allowing children to handle attractive cigarette packs – might it not encourage them to smoke if the hypothesis of the film is correct? – it seems to me this whole campaign for standardised packaging is a distraction from the real issue. Again, something is being done: the government is bringing in legislation to ‘protect our kids’ by making cigarette packs less attractive. Two cheers for the government.

Is the push to plain packaging based on the kind of research mentioned above? If so, it seems mightily unscientific to me. Do children start smoking because they see an attractive cigarette pack in a shop, even if it’s on the top shelf, and say, ‘Ooh, look at that, it’s like a Ferrari, it’s red – my favourite colour! I must try smoking!’ Or do they say, contemplating another pack, ‘I think I’ll try smoking – that pack makes me feel I’ll be in a wonderland of happiness!’ Do they? I submit that they don’t. Children want to smoke because they see other people smoking and wish to imitate it. So they have already decided to obtain cigarettes somehow. Do they then look at the pack, note with disgust and loathing the horrible pictures – and  change their minds? Where is the evidence for that? I think it will do little to put children off. They might even be more tempted to smoke to try to appear grown-up enough not be frightened by the graphic images.

Whatever the packs looks like, why aren’t children put off by their first experiences of smoking? When I ask my smoker patients to describe the effects of the first cigarette they tried behind the bicycle shed aged twelve or fifteen, they usually have no difficulty in recalling them, even decades later. They say things like:

  • It wasn’t pleasant
  • It made me cough and I felt dizzy
  • It was horrible. I felt sick and had to lie down

But that didn’t put them off – they were hooked from the first puff!

First it was the big debate about passive smoking: was it or wasn’t it harmful? Then it was the banning of smoking in public indoor areas: would it put pubs and restaurants out of business? Now it’s e-cigarettes and plandardised packaging.

It seems to me all these debates are nothing more than delaying tactics. Big Tobacco will argue and wheedle and lobby and engage expensive lawyers and pay for independent grass roots campaigns and for completely unbiased scientists to do studies to show (amazing!) that passive smoking is not harmful, pubs and restaurants will go out of business, standardised packaging will not work and anyhow is unnecessary because (would you believe it!) Big Tobacco does not target children and it will encourage cigarette smuggling – very wicked! – and what good corporate citizens the tobacco companies are to wish to uphold the law. All of this is obfuscation and a distraction from the real issue. While the pseudo-debate goes on about the desirability and effectiveness of standardised packaging, what does Big Tobacco do in the meantime – the meantime being measured in years and even decades?

It goes merrily on making and selling cigarettes.

Text © Gabriel Symonds

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