The Department of Health consultation on the future of tobacco packaging closed on Friday. Since it launched, we’ve been running our campaign – “The answer is plain” – to raise awareness of the consultation and gather support for the removal of slickly designed and highly colourful tobacco packaging.

We launched the campaign in April with this hard-hitting video showing how children responded to different cigarette packs:

Unscripted and unprompted, the compelling footage makes it impossible to deny that children find tobacco packaging attractive and appealing.

The evidence

The researchers also ran a series of focus groups with a cross section of different 15 year olds. They found that some branded packs had an emotional impact, with teenagers saying things like “It looks as if you’re more mature. Better and more popular” and “It makes me feel quite cool … It makes you feel stylish and that, kind of upper class.”

Talking about feminine ‘superslim’ cigarette, girls said things like: “If any of them are attractive, it’s that one just because it’s kind of perfume shaped” and “They look too colourful to be harmful.”

It’s clearly wrong that cigarette packs are sending this message.

Of course, packaging is not the only reason that children start smoking – peer pressure and role models will always have a strong influence. But the evidence shows that packs do matter. Putting cigarettes in packs of a uniform size, shape and colour with prominent health warnings will give millions of children one less reason to start smoking.

We also want to be clear that plain packaging is not about stigmatising smokers. Cigarettes will still be available for adults to buy, just without the glitzy, attractive pack designs.

With the video, we released a report called “The packaging of tobacco products”, which outlines how packaging is used by the tobacco industry and how young people perceive tobacco packaging.

The report found that packaging is a key part of marketing for all consumer goods, including tobacco. Researchers looked at the evidence from the tobacco industry’s internal documents, which were released as part of legal action in the USA in the late 1990s.

It is striking how even before comprehensive restrictions on traditional advertising, packaging was key and that it only became more important after traditional forms of advertising – billboards, magazines etc – were outlawed. A systematic survey of the retail press brought the evidence from the tobacco industry up-to-date and found that just in the last few years, mentions of new packs and variations of the main brands had grown.

Nobody likes to think that they’re being influenced by advertising and branding, and a person’s responses to them may not be overtly conscious. But the very fact that millions of pounds are pumped into the packaging designs of everyday goods shows that businesses know that packaging and branding helps to sell their products. Why would tobacco be different?

We must ensure children are not exposed to this silent salesman when it comes to cigarettes.

Fantastic response

It’s been a busy four months for our plain packaging campaign and we’ve had a fantastic response with around 80,000 of you signing up to our campaign. On top of this, our partners – the Smokefree Action Coalition – have collected even more, so it’s great to see such a huge amount of public support for this measure.

We want to thank all our supporters who have signed up to the campaign and shown their support.

Throughout the campaign our supporters and campaigners have been extremely busy and supportive. In June we held a reception in Westminster where some of our Cancer Campaigns Ambassadors met to discuss plain packaging and urge their local MPs to support our campaign. It was a great day and further showed the commitment and passion of our supporters to reduce the impact of tobacco.

Visit to Westminster (picture by Danny Fitzpatrick)

Cancer Research UK ambassadors outside Westminster

More than 80 of the ambassadors and volunteers “de-branded” themselves in Westminster’s Parliament Square to highlight how incredibly powerful brands are – and to show that tobacco is one brand our children can live without.

The tobacco industry makes millions of pounds every year selling a product that kills half of all its long term users. It wasn’t surprising that we would face opposition to plain packaging from various quarters, including libertarians, pro-smokers and the tobacco industry.

Some of the flawed arguments against plain packs claimed there was no evidence this will reduce smoking rates; that this would be a smugglers charter and increase counterfeit and smuggled tobacco; and that business would suffer. JTI (Japan Tobacco International) also launched a £2million campaign to fight against plain packaging. We’ve addressed these arguments in our previous posts, pointing out the errors in these arguments and highlighting the tactics of the tobacco industry.

What next?

The Department of Health will now consider all the responses and submissions to the consultation and report back. We’re not sure when that will be but we’ll be following the issue closely, so watch this space.