A new study presented today in Dublin has found a significant link between cigarette branding and ‘false beliefs’ among smokers and children. The authors argue that this link provides strong evidence for the introduction of plain packaging for all tobacco products in the UK.
The study surveyed 516 adult smokers and 806 children aged 11 to 17. They were asked to compare brands on five measures: taste, tar delivery, health risks, attractiveness and either ease of quitting (adult smokers) or the brand they would chose if trying smoking (children).
The study hypothesized that certain brands which were, for example, labelled as “smooth” would be seen less harmful, easier to quit, and more appealing to children. More than half of adults and children reported that brands with the word “smooth”. Adult and child participants routinely made this assumption: for example, more than half of adults and children reported that brands with the word “smooth” on packs would be less harmful to smoke. Children and adults also believed that packs in lighter colours—grey vs. dark red, for example—would be less harmful and easier to quit.
Although it has been illegal to make misleading health claims on tobacco branding since 2003  with descriptors such as ‘light’ and ‘mild’ being banned, 75% of adult smokers incorrectly believed there was a difference in health benefits between brands. This was replicated in the sample of children who have grown up during an era when most forms of tobacco advertising have been banned.
The participants were also asked to compare “normal” branded packs with plain packs—packs with the colours and symbols removed. Both adult smokers and children were much less likely to perceive any difference in terms of health risk when the packs were plain. They were also much less likely to view the plain packs as attractive and something they would like to smoke.
Lead author David Hammond said:
“Research in the US, Canada, Australia and now the UK all support the case for tighter regulations on pack branding. Tobacco packages are portable advertisements that have long been used to reassure consumers about the risks of smoking. In this study, children as young as 12 reported significant levels of false beliefs about the risks of cigarette brands based upon the colours and words on UK packs. Plain packaging has great potential as a public health measure and I urge the UK Government to support this measure.”
On 6th May members of the House of Lords will vote on an amendment, tabled by Lord Patel, to The Health Bill to mandate plain packaging for all tobacco products.