*In 2010, tobacco industry’s profit was equivalent to US$6,000 for each death caused by tobacco.
* Since the 1st Tobacco Atlas in 2002, almost 50 million people have died from tobacco.
* 43 trillion cigarettes have been smoked in the last decade.
Plain packaging welcome
by Saoirse Nic Gabhainn
While a number of marketing tools have been cut off from the tobacco industry, one very important one remains: packaging, writes Dr Saoirse Nic Gabhainn
Ireland has become the first country in Europe to pass legislation on how tobacco products will be packaged. This places us to the forefront of developments in public health and highlights the extent of the commitment to making a tobacco free society a reality in our lifetimes.
Although the term ‘plain’ packaging is widely used, it is misleading. What is to be introduced is more accurately called ‘standardised’ packaging. Tobacco products will all look very similar to one another, but with health warnings. The packs will all have the same shape, size, colour and method of opening, with no logos, branding or design from the manufacturers. The name of each brand will appear on each pack, but in standard typeface and size. The health warnings will vary, but all will be large and very graphic.
Many groups have welcomed this bold move, including the College of Physicians and the Irish Cancer Society, but what is it designed to achieve? It has been well documented for decades that smoking is dangerous for smokers and for those exposed to smoke. Smoking is the number one cause of death, disability and ill-health all over the world.
However, knowing that smoking is bad for you, and could kill you, is not enough to stop people smoking or to stop them starting to smoke. Smoking is addictive and, it is attractive to some people, especially before they start smoking, seems to provide a sense of ‘belonging’ to a social group and is thought of as evidence of being mature or adult. There is a range of myths about smoking, for example that it helps to manage stress or to reduce appetite. These myths are encouraged by tobacco industry branding.
The tobacco industry is desperate because they kill their own customers. Every year in Ireland approximately 5,200 people die from using tobacco, 44 per cent of them from cancer. All of these deaths are avoidable and unnecessary. In order to sell enough cigarettes to maintain their sales, they need to recruit 50 new smokers every day.
Ireland has been brave in tackling the issue of smoking – particularly with the large increases in prices over the years – and the introduction of the ban on smoking in workplaces, which includes hotels, bars and restaurants. Smoking education and smoking cessation services have been introduced across the country. All these initiatives have made smoking less visible, less socially acceptable and more expensive, and have contributed to the reduction in smoking.
In the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway, we have been studying the reduction in smoking behaviour over time. The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Ireland study has documented how the rates of smoking among 9 to 17 year olds has gone down from 21 per cent in 1998 to 12 per cent in 2010, with even lower rates predicted for 2015.
This is good news, but the costs of smoking continue to escalate. The costs to the state of premature deaths caused by smoking is about €3,500 million per year, while the cost of treating tobacco-related diseases is about €500 million per year.
The patterns in smoking have changed. Traditionally smoking was much more common among men. This is no longer the case and the tobacco industry spend billions targeting young women. The rates of smoking among young women have increased to about the same level as men and in some places even higher. Similarly, smoking is now more prevalent among those from low or middle-income families, and those living with stress and worry.
These are deliberate tactics of the tobacco industry, who want to target the most vulnerable in our society. This targeting takes the form of very clever marketing. While quite a number of marketing tools have been cut off for the industry – such as billboards, sponsoring social and sporting events, in-shop and magazine advertising – one very important marketing opportunity remains.
Cigarette and tobacco packaging is the last great marketing tool available to the Tobacco Industry. Designed to attract different people, pale colours, wistful images and italics make the products seem more feminine and less harmful.
Innovative packagings, such as curved packs, slide packs and circular packs intrigue both new and established smokers, drawing them in to experiment with the ‘fashionable’, ‘fun’ or ‘statement’ products. Standardised packaging, without colour or logos, will make tobacco products less attractive to smokers. Research has shown that assumptions about the relative strength and harmfulness of cigarette brands are removed by standard packages, and render the health warnings more effective.
Standardised packing is one measure in the new Action Plan for a Tobacco Free Ireland, one that is welcome to all concerned about the future of our society. Find out more at: http://health.gov.ie/blog/publications/tobacco-free-ireland-action-plan/.
Dr Saoirse Nic Gabhainn is a Senior Lecturer in Discipline of Health Promotion at School of Health Sciences at National University of Ireland, Galway. This op ed piece was originally published in the Galway (Ireland) Independent