In the last series of Mad Men, the directors of Sterling Cooper stopped just short of hurling themselves from the 23rd floor down on to Madison Avenue in a collective suicide pact after hearing that they had lost the contract to advertise Lucky Strike cigarettes. Some 45 years on in the real world, and tobacco advertising is banned on this side of the Atlantic and severely restricted in the US. Canada has gone further by banning attractive, back-lit displays of cigarette packets near the tills of shops and supermarkets. So, too, have Iceland, Norway, some Australian states and the Republic of Ireland. Not the UK, however. Not yet anyway.
“The legislation was passed by the last government with the intention that supermarkets would have had to remove these displays in 2011, and small retailers two years later,” says Professor Ann McNeill, deputy director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies. “However, the coalition hasn’t yet committed itself to implementing that legislation.”
She is surprised by that. “They said in their health white paper: ‘Reducing smoking will continue to be a focus for public health’. Also, they claim they’re committed to reducing health inequalities. Given that tobacco accounts for half the differences in life expectancies between social groups one and five, you’d think ministers would want to do everything they can to nudge the public towards healthier choices.”
McNeill is a psychologist based at Nottingham University, the lead in a consortium of nine universities that make up the UK Centre. For 25 years she has worked with experts in other fields, including toxicology, pharmacology and marketing, to find ways of countering the harmful effects of what she calls “the only consumer product, apart from guns, that kills if used as the manufacturer intends”.
She wants to ensure that there is plenty of evidence to counter the intense lobbying of the tobacco industry as it seeks to preserve point-of-sales displays as one of its few remaining marketing gambits. Accordingly, she was only too glad to accept a commission from the Office of Tobacco Control in Ireland to evaluate the effects on adults, retailers and, particularly, children since the ban on displays was introduced there in July 2009. “The budget was too small to commission primary research,” she admits. “So we used existing data sets and augmented them with some questions of our own.”
Over 180 teenagers, aged between 13 and 15, were interviewed a month before the Irish legislation came into effect and a month afterwards. “We found that there was a significant drop in their recall levels when it came to tobacco displays,” McNeill goes on. “Over 80% of them were aware of the displays before the legislation was passed. Afterwards, only 22% thought they’d seen something to do with cigarettes when they went to the shop.”
But why did they think they’d seen anything at all if the displays had been removed?
“They could have been thinking about a vending machine, or it might have been the leather-bound menu of brands that Irish retailers now produce if anyone asks for cigarettes and they’re not sure of the brand they want.”
Further questioning revealed that the majority of youngsters thought it was more difficult for anyone under age to buy cigarettes since the new law came in. “Our survey of Irish retailers backed that up,” says McNeill. “Children could no longer come in, point to a pack in a display and say ‘I’ll have 20 of those’. There was an extra step involved that could undermine their confidence when it came to persuading the person behind the counter that they were over 16.”
Between 30 and 40 retailers were interviewed. The researchers also wanted to find out how they felt about the removal of displays affecting sales and reducing their income. “There are three answers to that,” McNeill says. “One is that profit margins are not great on cigarettes. Another is that tobacco sales have been declining markedly over the past few decades and retailers have been adapting. They know that if customers aren’t spending on cigarettes, they’ll have more to spend on other items. And finally, small retailers in particular are at the heart of their communities and increasingly they don’t want to make profits from a product that they know is killing some of their customers.”
So what did the adults surveyed feel about the removal of tobacco displays?
“We used a survey of 1,000 adults carried out by the Office of Tobacco Control and added a couple of questions of our own. Had they noticed any difference since the displays were removed? And did they support the legislation?”
Support rose from 58% before the legislation came into force to 66% afterward – not least because of the removal of temptation. “Those who were trying to give up found themselves wavering if they’d gone down to the shop to buy, say, a bottle of milk,” the professor explains. “They’d be in a queue, look at the display and think ‘I might as well get 20 Marlborough while I’m here’. And those who’d already given up felt that they could have been triggered into a relapse by those tempting displays.”
Much to her frustration, that temptation looks set to remain for the foreseeable future – on this side of the Irish Sea, at least.
By Chris Arnot
The Guardian, 11 January 2011