Thursday 30 October 2014

James Reilly v big tobacco

In Australia, cigarette packets now bear grisly images of tumours on plain backgrounds, in place of colourful logos. As Ireland prepares to follow suit, Suzanne Harrington asks if it will be enough to stop the next generation getting hooked

Australian cigarette packet

Here are some things a group of six and seven-year-old children said when shown a selection of product packaging: "It stands out"; "it makes you happy looking at it"; it's pretty and girly"; red is my favourite colour"; "it's funky ... fancy... like ice cubes and mint"; "it looks posh"; it reminds me of a symbol in Tinti [bath products]"; it makes you feel like you're in a wonderland of happiness".

The children were talking about cigarette packets. Their responses were complex in terms of decoding visual signifiers at such a young age, yet uncomplicated in that they associated the assorted colours with positive feelings, and identified positive feelings with the graphics and logos, without having a clue what they meant or what the packages actually contained.

The YouTube video (tinyurl.com/84bdlwd) is part of a campaign by Cancer Research UK to sell tobacco products in non-branded packaging, called The Answer Is Plain.

So far, the campaign has not been embraced by the UK government – a spokesperson for David Cameron said in May: "We are still waiting to see how it works in Australia before deciding what to do. There are no plans to introduce it here now."

Ireland, however, is very much on the case, with a ban on cigarette package branding and logos set to come into effect next year. We will be the first country in Europe to do this, and only the second country in the world after Australia.

Down under, cigarettes are now sold in plain, olive-coloured packaging, in same-size boxes with uniform typeface and large health warnings; the only splash of colour comes from some vivid photographs of the effects of cancer.

A rotting mouth is accompanied by the stark warning, "Smoking causes mouth and throat cancer", and a horror-movie eyeball, which is a genuine medical photo, illustrates how "Smoking causes blindness".

Logically, those small kids for whom current European cigarette packaging is a funky wonderland of happiness might have a rather more visceral reaction to the Australian packaging. Such as "yuck", "ewww", "bleugh".

Since the inception of plain packaging in Australia in December 2012, there have been some anecdotal reports of behavioural changes from smokers.

According to Jonathan Liberman, an Australian lawyer involved with the ban on branded packaging, phonecalls to the Australian smoking quitline increased when cigarette logos were replaced with graphic images of what they do to you.

And such is the subliminal power of packaging that Australian smokers reported their cigarettes "tasted different" when in non-logo packaging.

This is the intention – the aim of plain packaging is not to alienate smokers already hooked (given that cigarettes are possibly the most addictive product legally on sale in the world today, it would take more than an eyeball to put off smoking addicts), but to deter future smokers. In other words, kids.

Minister for Health James Reilly refers to current cigarette packets as "silent salesmen" and "mobile billboards".

Here's the thing. Ireland needs to recruit around 50 new smokers a day to keep its smoker rates at current levels. The vast majority of smokers – 78pc – say that they began smoking when still aged under 18. And young people are generally more brand-susceptible.

The tobacco industry needs you to start smoking young, despite its insistence that cigarettes are an adult product. This is the same tobacco industry that also insisted for many decades that its adult product was not addictive, while keeping very quiet indeed about its adult product being carcinogenic – a fact known to the industry since 1959.

Yet Ireland already has some of the most stringent anti-smoking legislation on earth. We were the first country in the world to instigate a total ban on smoking in the workplace, in 2004. This workplace ban even includes your house, if someone non-resident – a babysitter, a plumber, a delivery person – is working in it.

In 2009, tobacco products were no longer allowed to be displayed in shops here, while cigarette vending machines were required to use special tokens, and packs of 10 cigarettes were discontinued. Today, a pack of 20 costs almost a tenner. The climate could not be more discouraging.

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