Today, on World No Tobacco Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for plain packaging of tobacco products. Each year on May 31, WHO and partners highlight the health risks associated with tobacco use and advocate for specific efforts to reduce use across the globe.
The focus of conversation today is plain packaging, which WHO argues “is an important demand reduction measure that reduces the attractiveness of tobacco products, restricts use of tobacco packaging as a form of tobacco advertising and promotion, limits misleading packaging and labelling, and increases the effectiveness of health warnings.”
So what’s the skinny for chatter around the water cooler today? Is plain packaging such a scary thought for the tobacco industry?
- What? Plain packaging (also called standardized packaging) restricts the use of logos, colors, images, and other promotional information on tobacco packages. Instead, only the brand name, product name, contact details, and the quantity of product in the packaging are displayed in a prescribed font style (e.g., black and white). Government-mandated markings, such as health warnings, are also displayed. Plain packaging may be implemented in conjunction with large graphic health warnings – but such warnings are a related but different packaging question.
- Why? According to WHO , the goals of plain packaging are to:
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- Reduce the attractiveness of tobacco products;
- Eliminate the effects of tobacco packaging as a form of advertising and promotion;
- Address package design techniques that may suggest that some products are less harmful than others; and
- Increase the noticeability and effectiveness of health warnings.
- Where? WHO is calling for all countries to implement plain packaging as part of a comprehensive approach to tobacco control. There are a handful of countries that have a head start in the process – namely Australia.
- Australia implemented plain packaging in December 2012, the first country to do so.
- Other countries have started to follow suit. France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom all passed laws to implement plain packaging to begin in 2016 – in what WHO is calling a new trend in global efforts to control tobacco products.
- So What? Australia’s packaging changes (which include plain packaging and graphic health warnings) are considered a success story.
- Australia’s post-implementation review found that a .55 percentage point fall in smoking prevalence – or 108,000 people – was attributable to the packaging changes.
- And, if numbers don’t quite bring the impact to life, check out John Oliver’s more satirical take on the impact of tobacco packaging in Australia: "Perhaps unsurprisingly, since this law was implemented, total consumption of tobacco and cigarettes in Australia fell to record lows, and nightmares about eyeballs have risen to record highs."
- In addition to the impact observed in Australia, other studies demonstrate the potential for tobacco packaging to influence perceptions of risk and other behavioral outcomes. For example, phrases such as "additive-free" and "natural" on packaging can be a concern as they may lead consumers to believe cigarettes with these or similar descriptors pose fewer health risks in cases where the necessary scientific support for such claims doesn’t exist.