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Research undermines tobacco industry’s plain packaging claims

Student in the ISB

Wednesday 10 October 2012 3:51pm

Tobacco plain packagingTwo research studies led by University of Otago researchers have challenged tobacco companies’ claims about plain packaging.

Both studies were conducted by the ASPIRE2025 research group, which includes Professors Janet Hoek and Phil Gendall working from Otago’s Department of Marketing, and Professor Richard Edwards from the University’s Department of Public Health (Wellington).

The first study involved a survey of 418 smokers and 418 non-smokers in New Zealand and was carried out in March 2012. The study has been published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

Professor Hoek says the survey found strong support for plain packaging.

"Overall, more than two-thirds of respondents supported plain packaging. It’s important to note that we undertook the survey before the current debate over plain packaging, so this estimate shows very high instinctive support for a policy that people had heard little about at the time,” she says.

Professor Hoek notes that when legislation introducing smoke-free bars and restaurants was passed in 2003, surveys showed support levels of around 35%. Since then, however, support has grown significantly. Now well over 80% of New Zealanders support smokefree bars and restaurants.

"Support for many tobacco control policies increases once they have been implemented and people experience their benefits. Support for plain packaging is already very high, but we would expect it to increase even further as the issues are debated and after plain packs are introduced."

Professor Gendall says that although tobacco companies argue that packaging simply encourages brand switching, the survey found only 29% of smokers agreed that was the case, while 44% disagreed.

"These findings tell us smokers don't buy the argument that packaging encourages them to switch brands. That's because smokers know that they are extremely brand loyal and attached to their preferred brand, and very unlikely to switch to other brands,” he says.

Professor Edwards says the survey also shows very low support for the tobacco industry's argument that plain packaging is unfair because it would prevent them from using their brands and logos.

"Including both smokers and non-smokers, only 20% of respondents agreed that plain packaging would be unfair, and nearly three times as many disagreed with this proposition. The public have clearly seen through tobacco companies’ claims and have little sympathy for their arguments."

The second study, published recently in BMC Public Health, found tobacco packaging communicated very powerful brand identities to young adult smokers and non-smokers. Smokers and non-smokers alike were able to identify clear brand personalities for both familiar and unfamiliar cigarette brands.

Professor Hoek says these findings show that packaging performs the same functions as advertising.

“It communicates positive and aspirational attributes about cigarette brands and we know from other work we’ve conducted that young people find these attributes very attractive.”

The study also included an American brand called Basic, with little in the way of brand imagery, unlike typical New Zealand tobacco brands, which feature extensive branding. Both smokers and non-smokers saw Basic as only ‘budget’ and ‘plain’.

"Removing brand imagery eliminates positive brand personalities that attract young people to smoking. Because plain packaging is not simply plain but unattractive, we expect these negative attribute associations to increase and smoking to become even less attractive with plain packaging,” says Professor Gendall.

Professor Hoek also points out that New Zealand has signed up to the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which requires the removal of all tobacco marketing, promotion and sponsorship.

"Findings from these studies show that current cigarette packaging acts as advertising and tell us that New Zealand must implement plain packaging if it is to eliminate tobacco marketing and meet its FCTC obligations.

“The studies also show exceptional public support for this measure. Plain packaging would be both a logical and popular next step towards achieving a smokefree New Zealand by 2025," she says.

Updated Thursday 11 October 2012

Response to company’s criticism of new plain packaging research

British American Tobacco (BAT) has made claims that are illogical, unsupported and that ignore a well-established evidence base in its reaction to yesterday’s University of Otago tobacco research announcement.

This is the view of University of Otago Marketing Department researcher Professor Janet Hoek, who has responded to BAT’s general manager Steve Rush’s remarks about her team’s research.

“His claims are illogical, unsupported and ignore a well established evidence base. He has trotted out the same tired arguments in a failed attempt to disguise the fact that there is very strong public support for plain packaging, and very little sympathy for the arguments his company is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to promote,” she says.

“We know from experimental work that plain packaging greatly reduces the perceived and actual experience of smoking. We also know from smokers’ own assessments that it is likely to stimulate quit attempts and deter smoking initiation.” 

Professor Hoek notes that tobacco companies have opposed every evidence-based, proportionate tobacco control measure, from the removal of mass media advertising, the introduction of smokefree bars and restaurants, and the requirement for tobacco packages to feature graphic health warnings.

“The evidence speaks for itself. Twenty years ago, smoking prevalence in New Zealand was nearly 30%; today, the latest estimates suggest it is around 16%. Are tobacco companies seriously expecting us to believe that this reduction is a mere coincidence, completely independent of tobacco control measures?”

Contrary to Mr Rush’s claims, the research evidence shows graphic health warnings have stimulated quit attempts among smokers and, more importantly, they have influenced smoking initiation.

“In 2008, when graphic health warnings were introduced in New Zealand, 60% of 14-15 year olds surveyed in the ASH Year10 study had never smoked (i.e., had not even had a single puff); the latest figures show that estimate has increased to 70%. It is quite clear that the measures the government is putting in place are having exactly the effect researchers predicted: they are protecting children and young people from the scourge of smoking.”

Mr Rush’s other comments lack any supporting evidence.

“It’s curious that the tobacco industry calls on public health researchers to provide evidence a measure will succeed before it has even been implemented, but has no qualms about making claims that lack any evidence base at all.” 

Professor Hoek says the Australian High court has just resoundingly rejected tobacco companies’ claims regarding intellectual property. Recent research raises serious questions about the industry’s illicit trade claims while international court cases show that, where illicit trade has occurred, tobacco companies have often been complicit in it.

“Furthermore, far from damaging New Zealand’s reputation, plain packaging and the government’s wider goal of achieving a smokefree society by 2025 will enhance our position as a ‘clean, green’ nation that, quite rightly, places a high priority on its citizen’s health.”

Contact details for more information

Professor Janet Hoek
Department of Marketing
University of Otago
Tel +64 3 4797692

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