Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 7 - October 2011
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Colour me a safer smoker?

Study shows pack colours change perceptions of risk

By Joe Strizzi

One-fifth of smokers believe silver, gold and white coloured packages contain less harmful cigarettes than their red and black counterparts, despite decades of warnings by medical professionals that there are no ‘safer’ cigarettes on the market.

This, according to a recent study published in the journal Addiction entitled Beyond Light and Mild: Cigarette Brand Descriptors and Perceptions of Risk in the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Four Country Survey, was based on research culled from more than 8,000 smokers from Canada, the US and the UK.

The survey found that smokers, in addition to silver, gold and white, believe that blue and purple coloured packs are less dangerous. The US had the highest rates of smokers with false beliefs.

The study’s researchers, including David Hammond of the Department of Health Studies & Gerontology at the University of Waterloo and an expert on tobacco packaging, claim that tobacco companies are using colours to re-brand products previously labelled as light, low-tar or mild; labelling that is now prohibited in many countries around the world. For example, Marlboro Lights are now known as Marlboro Gold.

Many smokers surveyed also had incorrect beliefs that it is the nicotine in cigarettes that causes cancer, that cigarettes with a harsh taste are riskier to smoke than smooth-tasting cigarettes and that filters reduce risk.

Packaging as advertising

The authors argue that their findings show more regulation is needed as all cigarettes are harmful. The results also support the potential benefits of plain packaging regulations under which all cigarettes would be sold in packages with the same plain, dull colours without logos or graphics, thus eliminating the tobacco industry’s potential for promotion via brand imagery on packages.

Health groups have argued for years that tobacco companies are using product labelling and descriptors as ways to advertise their products by associating them with lifestyle choices.

Australia is set to become the first country to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes under a wide-ranging set of anti-smoking measures that the government unveiled in April, thereby eliminating the last and best brand marketing vehicle the tobacco industry has left, a precedent that will have worldwide repercussions (please see page 13).

The tobacco industry has vehemently opposed the idea of plain packaging, arguing, among other things, that there is no proof that plain packaging will reduce smoking.

“We will continue to use all necessary resources and extensive stakeholder engagement and, where necessary, litigation to actively challenge unreasonable regulatory proposals,” said Louis Camilleri, Chairman and CEO of Philip Morris International, in response to Australia’s announcement.

Melanie Wakefield, Director of the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer in Victoria, Australia, and her colleagues, examined numerous industry documents that state the contrary.

In the March 2002 issue of Tobacco Control they wrote that “documents show that, especially in the context of tighter restrictions on conventional avenues for tobacco marketing, tobacco companies view cigarette packaging as an integral component of marketing strategy and a vehicle for (a) creating significant in store presence at the point of purchase, and (b) communicating brand image. Market testing results indicate that such imagery is so strong as to influence smokers’ taste ratings of the same cigarettes when packaged differently.”

They go on to say that systematic and extensive research is carried out by tobacco companies to ensure that cigarette packaging appeals to selected target groups, including young adults and women.

The study, entitled The Cigarette Pack as Image: New Evidence from Tobacco Industry Documents, found that cigarette pack design is an important communication device for cigarette brands and acts as an advertising medium, arguing that many smokers are misled by pack design into thinking that cigarettes may be ‘safer.’

“Almost 20 years ago it was suggested that restrictions in tobacco advertising would only be partly successful as the ‘pack itself is a powerful form of advertising.’ These words have proved prescient as the pack has indeed emerged as the primary marketing tool in jurisdictions with tight marketing controls,” wrote Crawford Moodie, from the Institute for Social Marketing and the University of Stirling, in Britain, in the April 2010 issue of the Tobacco Control journal. “UK tobacco industry marketing documents from 1995 and 2000 both predicted the increasing importance of the pack in the face of marketing restrictions and highlighted ways the pack can be employed to promote the product, via what they refer to as value, image and packaging.”

Canada adopted new regulations to strengthen and augment tobacco labelling requirements last June. Earlier this year, it unveiled the 16 new images and larger health warnings selected to appear on cigarette and little cigar packages covering 75% of the front and back covers and the inclusion of a toll-free quit line.


Brain images show that advertising can trigger the urge to light up


Dante Pirouz, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, released the results of a study in early April that allowed her to track participant responses to temptation-inducing advertising. Participants were showed print ads for cigarettes, including a rugged looking Marlboro Man or a woman lighting up a Camel held between her painted lips. Then, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to gather data about how those images affect blood flow to the brain, she found that regions of the brain associated with craving were highly active among the smokers in the group. Pirouz found that non-smokers’ brains responded to the ads as well. Craving centres showed increased blood flow, even in people who might not be otherwise inclined to smoke; smoking subjects reported the same feelings.