Opinion: Why cigarette packs should be plain

A plain pack of cigarettes

A plain pack of cigarettesBy Vicky Crichton

“Fancy,” “posh” and “pretty” – these are all words used by children in Cancer Research UK’s new video to describe a selection of current cigarette packets. Looking at one of the packs, a little boy says: “I think it would be quite fun to play with. It makes you almost happy looking at it.”

For most of us the idea that children are attracted to these deadly products is simply shocking.

Cancer Research UK statistics show that more than 4,000 people died of lung cancer in Scotland in 2010.

This risk of developing this devastating disease increases significantly in smokers and is just one of the cancers that can be the consequence of an addiction that is promoted to women as being glamorous and to men as offering maturity and popularity.

There is much we can do to prevent a new generation of children from starting to smoke in the first place.

The ban on smoking in public places has gone a long way to help Scots kick this deadly habit, but much more needs to be done to stop a new generation of children growing up as addicted adult smokers. The next step is to introduce plain and unattractive cigarette packaging so that fewer children are tempted to take their first steps towards tobacco addiction.

The UK government is currently discussing whether to replace the brightly coloured and slickly designed packs with ones of uniform size, shape and colours, with large picture warnings on the front and back. The move to bring in plain packaging like this is something Cancer Research UK strongly supports and we believe it will help reduce the appeal of tobacco to young people.

We also know that public opinion is behind us on this issue. A YouGov poll released by Ash Scotland just last week showed two thirds of Scots questioned were behind a move to introduce plain packaging. We think public support will be further boosted by Cancer Research UK’s new report which refers to documents from the tobacco industry that show that packaging has indeed been developed to specifically appeal to new smokers, through size, colour and design. This is significant when you consider that eight out of ten smokers start before the age of 19 years.

Take Rosa Macpherson, for example. This Alloa lady and ovarian cancer survivor started smoking at the age of 12 and she remembers choosing a brand of cigarettes that were presented in a glamorous looking pack. It was a further 35 years before Rosa managed to escape the shackles of a habit that was started so easily all those years earlier.

Sadly, Rosa lost her father to smoking related illnesses and so she knows only too well the damage the products inside the glitzy packs can do. The packaging helps hide and distract from the truth that tobacco will kill half of all long-term smokers.

As a mother, Rosa understands the importance of protecting future generations of children from a product full of poisons that harms those who smoke as well as those around them. That’s why she has signed our The Answer Is Plain petition and is urging other Scots to follow suit.

Loud and outraged voices will inevitably argue against changing tobacco packs, voices that will say there is no evidence this will reduce smoking rates, that this isn’t legal, it’s the nanny state gone mad, this will turn the UK into a smugglers’ paradise.

We say that tobacco is uniquely dangerous. There is no safe level of smoking. Smoking kills and we should be doing all we can to make sure that the power of advertising is not used to lure another generation into a lethal addiction.

Some people may also question why we – a research organisation – are supporting plain packaging. It’s simple: our mission is to beat cancer, and smoking is the single biggest preventable cause of the disease.

Unbranding cigarette packets won’t stop everyone from smoking but it will give millions of children one less reason to start.

– To support our campaign to end the packet racket and sign our petition, visit www.theanswerisplain.org

Vicky Crichton is Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager

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  • TheBabelFish

    This is all merely a distraction from the fact that research orgnisations have given up on existing smokers and the many people who get lung cancer for other reasons. It has always been one of the most common cancers, however it now only receives about 1% of cancer research funding worldwide. Instead everyone is concentrating on measures to demonise and criminalise smokers. The trend seems to be towards eventual prohibition, a tactic that has never worked for any other substance.

    I’m highly doubtful of the contention that young people take up smoking because fags come in a pretty box, and I know for a fact that the majority of existing smokers couldn’t care less what the packet looks like. The main effect of this policy will be to annoy shop assistants and, as I said, distract the rest of us from the fact that organisations like Cancer Research UK have given up on lung cancer because it’s easier and cheaper to persuade the general population to blame lung cancer patients for their own condition. Stop being so lazy and do some research!

  • John Watson

    Despite all we know about the harm caused by tobacco (cigarettes kill half of long-term regular smokers) the industry still seeks every opportunity to advertise its products and recruit new smokers. The industry knows full well that two thirds of these new smokers are under 18.

    Rather than being lazy the researchers have been very busy indeed – so the full evidence review published by the Government covered 37 pieces of published research and found “strong evidence….. that plain packaging would reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products”.

    • TheBabelFish

       They’re not supposed to be researching marketting strategies, they’re supposed to be researching cures for cancer!

      • guest

        prevention is better than cure, and the best way to avoid lung cancer is by not smoking

        • TheBabelFish

           ‘Prevention is better than cure,’ is one of those cliches that’s become so common people no longer think about it, but do think about it for a moment – it isn’t true if you’ve already got the disease. Or if you have the genetic predisposition which makes it likely or even inevitable that you will develop the disease. Your second statement isn’t true either. Not smoking may possibly be the best way to reduce your statistical likelihood of developing lung cancer, but it is far from a guarantee. If smoking did not exist lung cancer would still be quite a common cancer, worthy of a lot more research funding than it currently gets (lung cancer sufferers are usually presumed by most people to have been smokers and blamed for their own condition regardless of whether it’s true or not). And, at the risk of stating the obvious again, not smoking is not particularly useful advice if you’ve already smoked. It can be argued that there is a case for the govt, perhaps through the health department, to run public information campaigns, but I, and I suspect most people, would expect an organisation called Cancer Research UK to be doing cancer research and not diverting valuable resources into doing market research instead.

          • Agree Babelfish, they could start by looking into this: From George Monbiot’s Book Captive State, published 2000:

            As big business infiltrates the research agenda, ever wider zones of public enquiry are placed off limits. In 1999, the government published a White Paper on public health called Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation. The only atmospheric pollution named in the report is radon. It also happens to be one of the only pollutants in Britain which does not result from the activities of large corporations: it is naturally occurring. The report warns us about the dangers of cancer resulting from ‘exposure to radon gas in certain homes or excessive sunlight’, but nuclear power stations are not mentioned, and nor are any other chemicals, even though the paper concedes that ‘Pollutants in the atmosphere may cause cancer if inhaled or swallowed’. The language in which this warning is given is interesting: it creates the impression that breathing or ingesting pollution is something we can avoid. The paper informs us that the government hosted ‘the largest ever Ministerial conference on environment and health in 1999. It fails to tell us that the links between cancer and industrial pollution were dropped from the agenda soon after the meeting began. [link added] [emphasis added]

            Basically it seems that causes of cancer are acknowledged only if they can’t be laid at the door of heavy industrial pollutants. 

          • TheBabelFish

             Well Belinda you (and George, good old George) make some fair points. What we have been watching in recent years is basically big capital deciding who next to kick out of the lifeboat. It’s not unlike seeing an embattled prime minister sacrificing a damaged minister in the hope that our trust in the rest of his dodgy cabinet will be restored. Carcinogens are everywhere in the environment, but if their true extent was ever acknowledged, well it’s just too big to deal with, isn’t it? Bit like climate change.
            Twenty or thirty years ago the best lobbyists and propagandists big business could buy were deployed to defend big tobacco and cast doubt on the idea that tobacco might cause cancer. Now that big tobacco has been officially thrown to the wolves, the same people (not just the same type of people, often the same actual people!) have been redeployed to defend big oil, big coal, etc. from the reality of climate change for as long as the line can be held.
            And every day people walk around amongst traffic, breathing exhaust fumes which are known to be choc-full of carcinogens, never giving it a second thought. If you live on a major road you might as well have smoked a couple of packs before you even get out of bed. But don’t mention that. And don’t mention how male fertility rates are crashing, across all species all over the world. It’s all far too big to deal with, so best just shhhh!

          • TheBabelFish

             Well Belinda you (and George, good old George) make some fair points. What we have been watching in recent years is basically big capital deciding who next to kick out of the lifeboat. It’s not unlike seeing an embattled prime minister sacrificing a damaged minister in the hope that our trust in the rest of his dodgy cabinet will be restored. Carcinogens are everywhere in the environment, but if their true extent was ever acknowledged, well it’s just too big to deal with, isn’t it? Bit like climate change.
            Twenty or thirty years ago the best lobbyists and propagandists big business could buy were deployed to defend big tobacco and cast doubt on the idea that tobacco might cause cancer. Now that big tobacco has been officially thrown to the wolves, the same people (not just the same type of people, often the same actual people!) have been redeployed to defend big oil, big coal, etc. from the reality of climate change for as long as the line can be held.
            And every day people walk around amongst traffic, breathing exhaust fumes which are known to be choc-full of carcinogens, never giving it a second thought. If you live on a major road you might as well have smoked a couple of packs before you even get out of bed. But don’t mention that. And don’t mention how male fertility rates are crashing, across all species all over the world. It’s all far too big to deal with, so best just shhhh!

          • guest

            well I’m not going to write paragraph after paragraph on this blog because that’s a bit sad and I’d rather carrying on living my life. Anyone who supports the tobacco companies selling cigarettes is wrong! end of discussion!

          • TheBabelFish

             Well if that’s what you took out of my comments then you obviously didn’t take the time to read them, so discussing anything with you would be particularly pointless.

    • How many of these studies did they commission in the first place, with the criteria of TAG firmly in mind, namely to support further tobacco control policies: 
      http://science.cancerresearchuk.org/funding/find-grant/all-funding-schemes/tobacco-advisory-group-project-grants/? 

      The study was outrageously biased: all its authors from tobacco control/behavioural change and none from any other relevant discipline or outlook.

    • Chris W

      I don,t believe that cigarettes kill half of long term Smokers,wheres the evidence for this , It,s just more Propaganda by A.S.H who keep moving the goalposts and also tripping up on themselves, A.S.H Scotland actually stated it was 25% !

      • TheBabelFish

        Some people just love to play with statistics and numbers. You can make them say whatever you want. The way you get the 50% figure (I suspect) is by attributing all lung cancer deaths, all heart disease, all stroke, etc, etc to smoking. Any death from a disease for which smoking is known to be a risk factor is counted, without bothering to check how many of those people actually smoked, or if they had any other known risk factors such as alcohol or obesity. Or if they worked in a petrol station. Ever seen the cancer rates for petrol station workers? It’ll shock you.

        Here in Australia (where we will be getting the plain packaging this year, effective or not) we have another organisation that uses similar tactics. They’re called the TAC and they make the road safety ads. For years their slogan has been ‘Speed kills.’ Now I’m not an academic physicist, but I know enough to say that statement is demonstrably untrue. Humans would be quite capable, if we had the technology, of travelling at the speed of light with no ill effects. As long as we don’t accelerate or decelerate too quickly. It’s not the speed that kills you, it’s the coming to a sudden stop.

        This means, of course, that their new slogan, ‘Slowing down won’t kill you,’ is equally wrong. If you slow down rapidly enough, I’m pretty sure it will kill you!

  • Charles

    It doesn’t matter how ‘pretty’ cigarette packets are shops cannot legally sell to anybody under 18.