Plain packaging insults my intelligence, and yours, too

This is something of a response to Zetetic’s post, which in some part I agree with – BAT’s ads are just stupid.  And too long, especially since half your audience already know if they agree or disagree with it five seconds in.

(And I think the “slippery slope” warning is too little too late, because if we don’t see the same arguments being put forward for junk food in the next few years I’ll eat fat-free cheese.)

But I’m clearly on the “wrong” side when it comes to plain packaging – based on the people I see defending it, with whom I normally agree, and the people I see attacking it, at whom I normally want to throw half-bricks.

I just want to share two quotes from that modern-day source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and its article on plain packaging:

 Direct, concrete evidence of plain packaging’s effectiveness is unavailable as it has not yet been rolled out in any country.


However evidence from quantitative studies, qualitative research and the internal documents of the tobacco industry consistently identify packaging as an important part of tobacco promotion.

To give Wiki its due, this does seem to sum up the basic arguments for plain packaging.  But am I seriously the only person who can see how those two statements are not actually logically connected?

Am I the only person who sits here saying, “ZOMG!  Packaging is an important part of tobacco promotion?  Truly, this is a stunning revelation!”?

Is there something magical about cigarette packaging and branding which sets it apart from all other packaging and branding?  I’ve had long-term relationships with smokers, people.  I can assure you, the glint of light off a pack of Marlboro Lights is not significantly more enticing than a screechy Harvey Norman TV spot.

Check out this study, which contained earth-shattering conclusions like:

 tobacco packaging communicated powerful brand identities to young adult smokers and non-smokers, and respondents could identify clear brand personalities for both familiar and unfamiliar cigarette brands

This clearly doesn’t apply to any other products.  I, myself, simply could not make any kind of guess as to the intended audiences nor brand identities of these gaming devices or this laptop or this global brand.

Let’s remember, we’re already at a stage where supermarkets and dairies no longer have gigantic displays of cigarettes at every counter.  The argument then was, “the magical packaging magically entice people to smoke against their will, so we will deprive the magical packaging of its power!”

Strangely, people kept smoking.  It’s almost like cigarettes contain an addictive stimulant which also forms a significant part of a lot of some people’s social interactions.

So now … we’re seriously acting like “oh, well the brief moment when someone takes out their pack of cigarettes is enough to brainwash you into smoking!  That’s how powerful the psychic paper they make the packs out of is!”

Smoking’s bad for you.  We’ve known this for decades.  Let’s please give our fellow human beings the credit to assume they’re not just going “cancer?  But it comes in a pretty box!  YAY!”

(And please, don’t “but think of the children” at me.  Kids smoke because their parents smoke, their older siblings smoke, because they’re rebellious teens doing rebellious teen things.  Putting Mummy and Daddy’s fun-sticks in boring white boxes ain’t going to change their learned experiences of/associations with smoking.)


  1. Ben

    You’re right about the two statements not necessarily being logically connected. And the fact that plain packaging isn’t going to make smoking magically go away.

    “Direct, concrete evidence of plain packaging’s effectiveness is unavailable as it has not yet been rolled out in any country.”

    I would however be interested to see what long term effect it has. And I’ve got no problems with NZ being a test case. Or even split it North/South Island or some such so you can wheedle out other confounding factors. If it does, in the long term reduce smoking rates then by all means keep it. I wouldn’t expect huge changes, but that’s the benefit of doing controlled trials, you get to remove all the personal bias.

    Of course there is the problem that a trial of this sort would have to be 20 or 30 years long.

    • QoT

      Well, for a start I think NZers have had more than enough of being the guinea pigs for unproven theories. And of course even if that were palatable you’re correct, it would require an incredibly long-term view, and be completely muddied by other anti-smoking efforts already underway, and no modern politician is going to sign up to that.

      • Ben

        That’s where you have to start though, with an unproven theory. If I recall correctly (I’ll have to go find the research again, I really should keep a record of things like this) there are indications from short term studies that it might have some effect. Worth looking at though.
        With enough areas involved it should be possible to account for other anti-smoking efforts. It not just those. Even things like migration if it was big enough (large numbers of people decamping the South Island because of say, earthquakes for example) could sway the results.

        The big pity here though is as you say, the lack of politicians willing to sign up for something of this scale. Not just on the plain packaging issue but all sorts of long term health related issues we could be studying.

  2. Daniel

    I don’t think plain packaging is going to impact smoking rates or uptake. It might hurt the tobacco companies but with all of them on a level field it doesn’t seem likely. But I personally think thats where we should be targetting. We can’t just ban the things because its just cruel to do to existing smokers who are people and deserve some respect. Prohibition doesn’t work with alcohol or drugs probably won’t work with ciggaretts either.

    However the tobacco companies do work hard to promote and encourage smoking and profit from it. I’d love to see efforts directed at simply killing them. Allowing people to grow the stuff themselves and deal small amounts without the vast taxes perhaps. Or allow only the government to sell the stuff. Once you can’t make a profit from it there is no gain from promoting the stuff and that might reduce uptake. If nothing else it stops companies profiting from poisoning people.

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