Snazzy cigarette packaging has consumers thinking the product is less lethal

TORONTO — When it comes to choosing which cigarette to smoke it seems the prettier the package, the less lethal the product appears to those buying it.

A study published in the Journal of Public Health found cigarette packages in lighter colours, bearing words like “smooth” and “filter,” have consumers convinced the product has fewer health risks.

“We probably shouldn’t have packaging that confuses people about whether some brands are less harmful than others. That’s essentially a lethal misperception,” said the study’s lead author David Hammond, a professor of health studies at the University of Waterloo.

The study - one in a series of papers on cigarette packaging - had more than 600 adults, smokers and non-smokers, rate a variety of fictitious cigarette packages.

Participants were asked to compare packages in pairs and say which they believed would taste smoother, deliver more tar and carry lower health risks.

Eighty per cent of those surveyed said they believed the package labelled “smooth” would be less hazardous than the one labelled “regular.”

A lighter blue box was also thought to carry a lower health risk than a darker one, while about 75 per cent of respondents found a box with the picture of a charcoal filter likely to be less risky than one without the illustration.

While the study surveyed people only in Ontario, Hammond said the results likely reflected similar situations the world over as the tobacco industry uses similar packaging practices in other countries.

“Cigarette packaging is associated with false beliefs about the risks of cigarettes and obviously that’s a problem,” said Hammond.

With no billboard advertising and words like “light,” “mild”and “low-tar” outlawed from use, the calculated design of a cigarette package is incredibly important to tobacco companies, said Hammond.

“The pack is now the most important marketing tool in Canada,” he said.

The researchers are calling for an expansion of the list of words banned from cigarette packaging and they are also pushing for the implementation of plain standardized packaging for all brands.

Plain packaging involves removing any brand imagery from a box so all packs look identical save for the brand name which would appear in a mandated size, font and position. The WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control already states that countries should consider plain packaging.

Health Canada, however, is not considering the concept at the moment, said spokeswoman Christelle Legault.

Larger health messages and more health information could have a greater impact than plain packaging, said Legault.

New ideas in tobacco control may be brought up as Canada’s Federal Tobacco Strategy is renewed by 2011, she said.

As public health officials deliberate, tobacco industries say their phrasing is only to describe a cigarette’s taste. But this is debatable, Hammond said.

“Consumers are using it as indicators of risk,” he said. “That helps reduce their guilt and (they) continue smoking.”

While cigarette brands compete against one another with references to filters or statistics, Hammond said no brand trumps another with lower health risks.

Roberta Ferrence, executive director of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, said the study highlighted how existing regulations on packaging were not having the impact they were supposed to as people still consider some cigarettes less risky than others.

“It’s misleading advertising, there are no healthier cigarettes,” she said, adding that certain phrasing and colouring on a package could encourage people to take up smoking.

Variations in cigarette packaging also target different kinds of smokers, said Veda Peters, tobacco education co-ordinator with the Canadian Lung Association.

“People want to believe that there’s a safe way to use the product and they want to buy into these descriptors.”

Plain packaging would allow cigarettes to be stripped of the wordy advertising that surrounds them, she said.

“If you have generic packaging you see cigarettes for what they are - they’re unimportant, they’re dirty, they’re smelly, they do nothing for you.”

Ultimately, playing with colours and catchy phrasing on cigarette packages lies at the core of tobacco industry marketing, said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society.

“It’s a mini billboard that walks around school yards, communities and inside homes,” he said. “We need to have plain packaging.”

The U.K.-based journal in which the study appeared is published by a division of Oxford University Press.

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