- Plain packaging for cigarettes just makes sense
- Australia in 2012, but now 9 countries are implementing the policy
- They will even argue that plain packaging will increase smoking because the illicit tobacco market will increase
Curtailing the ability of cigarette packs to advertise and promote their brands just makes common sense. Why? Think about it - everybody these days would agree that the ban on advertising tobacco on television and the internet, on billboards and in shops, is sensible and necessary. Nobody could dispute that promoting tobacco and smoking have led to the greatest public health threat the world has ever known. And every marketing manager of any business that makes consumer goods will tell you how important packaging is to attract people into buying their products. Attractive packaging is advertising and for cigarette companies it is the only advertising they are left with.
Even though the tobacco companies try to deny it in public, they have known this for years. Disclosed internal industry documents show a Philip Morris executive as saying “In the absence of any other marketing messages, our packaging . . . is the sole communicator of our brand essence. Put in another way — when you don’t have anything else — our packaging is our marketing.”
The advertising power of packaging is even more important for cigarettes than it is for things like washing powder or noodles. This is because cigarettes are a ‘badge’ product that gets taken out and displayed every time a smoker takes out a cigarette or leaves the pack on a café table. These regular everyday actions expose other people, including kids, to the imagery and branding of tobacco. Branding that is intended to attract the eye away from the health warnings and make positive associations with smoking instead. Plain packaging removes all the promotional features and replaces them with a dull single colour, while leaving the important health warnings in place.
Taking a strong stand
So plain packaging for cigarettes just makes sense and the Government of Sri Lanka clearly sees the rationale for doing this. In April the Cabinet approved a proposal submitted by the Minister of Health, Dr Rajitha Senaratne, to introduce plain packaging for tobacco. The Minister is to be congratulated for taking a strong stand against the tobacco industry and now the Government shouldn’t delay bringing forward the law and must lead the way by making Sri Lanka the first country in Asia to adopt this policy.
Plain packaging started in Australia in 2012, but now 9 countries are implementing the policy, including France, the UK, Ireland and Norway, with many other countries in the process of adopting the laws. In Australia, and now with early statistics from France, the impacts have been clear – falling smoking rates especially among young people.
A study commissioned by the Australian Government showed that 108,228 less people were smoking as a direct result of plain packaging in the 34 months following implementation there. Youth smoking among 18-24 year olds has dropped from 15.7% in 2010 to 11.6% in 2016.
In France, in the year after plain packaging was implemented, the smoking rate for 18-24 year old men dropped from 44.2% in 2016 to 35.3% in 2017.
When Sri Lanka goes ahead, the tobacco companies, and the organisations they use as fronts to make the arguments for them, will shout and scream that plain packaging is unlawful, unconstitutional and steals their intellectual property. They will even argue that plain packaging will increase smoking because the illicit tobacco market will increase. Just the same as they have argued in every other country. All their arguments are baseless and flawed, but don’t take my word for it – courts around the world, in Australia, France, the UK and Norway, have rejected every legal challenge the tobacco companies have made against plain packaging laws.
In fact, when the tobacco companies brought a legal challenge against the plain packaging regulations in the UK Courts, they argued that the law was unjustified because it would lead an increase in illicit and counterfeit tobacco but the companies produced no evidence to support their argument and made it by “mere assertion”.In Australia, official figures show the rates of illicit tobacco usehave remained constant or dropped since 2012. Tobacco packaging rules have no impact on smuggling or illegal tobacco, instead it’s effective borders and strong policing that are the only measures that have a real effect.
Plain packaging is not a silver bullet that on its own will get rid of the scourge of tobacco, but it is a straight forward, common sense, cost free public health policy - one that every country should have in its arsenal and the faster Sri Lanka takes it forward, the better for every citizen.
(The writer is Director South Asia Programs, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids)