You might not notice it just yet, but the UK has become the latest country to introduce plain, standardised packaging of cigarettes, along with Australia and France.
The switch follows a landmark ‘yes’ vote in the House of Commons just over a year ago that saw MPs from all parties take a stand against tobacco marketing.
And following a final failed legal challenge, tobacco companies are no longer allowed to manufacture glitzy packs that evidence shows act as a ‘silent salesman’ to children. Here’s how packs will change:
This will be vital in helping protect children from being attracted to start smoking – and the evidence proves it.
It’s also hugely popular. Nearly three quarters of the public supported standard packs before they were made law:
So, after a journey spanning four years, we’re delighted they’re finally here. But what are standard packs? And what else is changing in tobacco marketing?
The colour and the shape
You might expect ‘plain’ packs to be white – but they won’t be. Instead, they’ll be a drab brown colour, with a matte finish.
This is thanks to research from Australia, which found that dark brown colours were the most effective in lowering cigarettes’ appeal, and led people to use words like ‘dirty’, ‘tar’ or ‘death’ when describing them.
But it’s not just the colour that’s changing. Until now, cigarette packs could be sold in different shapes and sizes, with different ways of opening that could mimic boxes of matches or lighters. And gone are the days of the thin ‘lipstick’ or ‘perfume’ packs (although slim cigarettes are still available to buy).
Pack design is important. Research shows these designs both attract young people to cigarettes, and mislead them about their damaging effects. Opening a pack sideways, for example, means the size of the health warning on the front becomes relatively smaller.
And cunning design is no accident. The tobacco industry has long been working out how to modify the shape, size and opening of packs to influence whether people view cigarettes as risky or appealing.
So when will plain packs actually hit the shelves?
For the time being, tobacco companies will be allowed to sell cigarette they’ve already made and packaged, but any made after today will have to conform to the new rules. And by May 2017, all packs on the shelves will have to meet these standards too.
So while standard packs won’t appear overnight, they’ll gradually appear on the shelves over the coming months.
And this can’t come soon enough as Rosa, one of our Cancer Campaigns Ambassadors – who led the charge to show MPs why standard packs were vital – explains:
Knowing that I had helped future generations of children and young people have one less reason to start smoking makes me feel grateful. I am thankful that my children and grandchildren are not exposed to the same marketing tactics that resulted in me developing a tobacco addiction and then cancer
Our Ambassadors are also helping to celebrate through a Twitter thunderclap, which you can join here.
More than just packaging – the Tobacco Products Directive
But the drab overhaul of packs is just one of a number of changes being introduced. A new EU law – called the Tobacco Products Directive – will also see a number of other measures introduced from today. These include:
1. Bigger health warnings on packs
It was more than 20 years after Sir Richard Doll first linked smoking and lung cancer that health warnings started appearing on cigarettes, in 1971. And even that was a voluntary agreement between the Government and the tobacco industry.
It took 20 more years before, in 1991, the EU brought in the first legally required warning labels, and made them larger in 2003 to cover a third of the pack. And it wasn’t until 2008 that graphic pictures on packs were required.
Now those health warnings will be boosted to cover up to 65% of both the front and back of a pack.
Standard packs could also be important here too, as research with schoolchildren found the drab alternatives increased visual attention to health warnings and away from branding.
2. Laying low the ‘low tar cigarette’ myth
Cigarette packs will also no longer have warnings on the amount of tar and nicotine they contain.
While that might seem odd, the logic is very clear: whether or not a cigarette is ‘normal’ or ‘low-tar’, smokers still ingest the same levels of tar and nicotine when they smoke.
This is because ‘low tar’ cigarettes have perforations on the filter, which can lead to a lower tar yield score when tested by a machine.
But in reality, smokers cover these perforations with their fingers, lips, or saliva, meaning that the damage caused by a ‘low tar’ cigarette is no different from a regular one.
3. No more ‘tasty’ cigarettes
The new EU law will also see a ban on menthol and flavoured cigarettes introduced by 2020, and flavour capsules in cigarette filters will be banned this year. This is a great move to limit a growing and uniquely harmful area of the tobacco industry’s product range.
Menthol can reduce the harshness of tobacco smoke, potentially making cigarettes more appealing for young people – a fact the tobacco industry already knows.
4. Changes to how e-cigarettes are regulated
There are also changes ahead for manufacturers of e-cigarettes. As well as changes affecting the size of tanks and strength of nicotine-containing liquids, e-cigarette manufacturers will have to decide whether to apply for them to be regulated as either a consumer product or a medicinal one, with different marketing restrictions on each.
If companies choose to make a claim that their e-cigarette helps smokers quit, they will have to apply for a medicines’ licence – but this will exempt them from certain regulations on strength and marketing.
These changes may spark considerable debate, and it’s essential that we monitor how they affect e-cigarette use. To make sure policy decisions around e-cigarettes continue to be evidence-based, and allow the devices to reach their potential to help smokers quit, we need more research.
That’s why as well as providing information, we’ve set up an e-cigarette research forum with Public Health England, and we’re part-funding a study across the UK to understand what these changes to e-cigarette marketing will mean. You can find more about its aims here.
Digging their heels in
These changes have been a long time coming and, overall, we think they’ll ultimately have a positive impact on smoking rates. But while standard packs and a number of the new EU measures are great news, not everyone was so keen to protect the health of our children.
In spite of restrictions on how they influence public health policy, the tobacco industry fought tooth and nail to prevent them being introduced.
Throughout the debate on standard packs, it provided an onslaught of misinformation. When the Government consulted on standard packs, the industry submitted evidence of poor quality, talked up concerns about smuggling and ‘brand-switching’, and suggested there’s no evidence standard packs will work, all of which run contrary to the evidence base.
And research has shown the Tobacco Products Directive was one of the most lobbied pieces of legislation in EU history.
After it didn’t get its way, the tobacco industry packed the legislation in their barristers’ briefcases, and marched it to court.
Although it’s tried to overturn standard packs and the Tobacco Products Directive through spurious legal challenges – wasting UK taxpayers’ money in the process – we’re happy to report it has been defeated.
We believe it’s utterly shameful that the tobacco industry has spent so much time, effort and money trying to block measures that will help prevent cancers in the future. It makes this quote from a World Health Organisation (WHO) Committee of Experts particularly poignant:
Tobacco use is unlike other threats to public health. Infectious diseases do not employ multinational public relations firms. There are no front groups to promote the spread of cholera. Mosquitos have no lobbyists
But standard packs are here, and that’s great news
These changes – particularly to tobacco packaging – are historic in the UK, and their impact cannot be overstated. Finally, we’ll see cigarettes for what they really are – a vehicle for an early grave that is entirely avoidable.
So out goes the glitzy, gift-wrapped cigarette pack, and in comes a gift to protect future generations from cancer.
And today we can celebrate that.
Dan Hunt is a policy advisor at Cancer Research UK
Tim Herts November 15, 2016
I understand the need for a standardised packet, however removing the “choice” of Menthol seems ridiculous! Surely if the packet is not advertised, then further the child cannot see the packet for sale in a shop, why ban Menthol? Absurd! Why is there not a ban on ALL fizzy, sugary drinks that also have no benefit? Where do these ban’s stop, is it not my choice to smoke or Drink Alcohol? Why was Horse riding not banned when listed by top Scientists as more deadly than some illegal drugs? Because “we” as humans should have the right to free will, however our government is making changes that affect my free will and right as a human being
Ian September 13, 2016
Changes to packet quantity and removing packets of 10 a waste of time, if people are trying to cut down to quit smoking making them buy packets that contain 20 only may just defeat the point. Keeping smaller quantity pack sizes I think will help
isadora61 August 9, 2016
I don’t agree, read:
Tanya June 6, 2016
Im wondering whats up with the kiddie size packs of smokes. We usually bought them packs as kids so they were easy to hide from our parents. Cant see them being a discouraging factor
David Ayre June 1, 2016
All for it !!!
John Groves May 27, 2016
I had never thought about this aspect of tobacco marketing before, but I did know that all manufacturers of consumer goods spend large sums on packaging appearance. If it was not so important why did the tobacco industry fight to try to prevent it? They have known for decades about the harm smoking does and have ruined the lives of U.S. scientists to silence them on the subject As a life long non-smoker, often surrounded by this revolting habit, I welcome any new legislation that helps to bring about the downfall of the tobacco giants. Keep up the Good Work !
Nick Peel May 24, 2016
Thanks for your comment.
It was the UK Government, not Cancer Research UK, that was forced to spend money fighting the legal case. This was because the tobacco industry took them to court over the new regulations. Tobacco use in England alone costs society approximately £13.8 billion each year, both in direct costs to the NHS, and other costs such as lost work days and productivity due to smoking related illness. This is more than the Government receives in tobacco taxes – that’s why we’re calling for a levy on their profits to pay for vital Stop Smoking Services that are under threat from government cuts. You can find out more about this here. If we help more people stop smoking, as well as saving lives, it will reduce the burden on the NHS.
Nick, Cancer Research UK
Carolyn Westrip May 21, 2016
GREAT NEWS…well done to ALL who have worked towards this latest step to deter folks from smoking or having others inhale cancer ridden smoke. A very big step at last.
Rj May 21, 2016
Why was public money used for legal challenge? Where does cancer research get the extra money from if it is not being used for cancer treatment. Also how much tax does the government take from tobacco companies in relation to the amount that is used for research and hospitals. If a larger percentage of this tax taken from companies/ customers went to hospitals more cancer could be treated/ cured.
D May 20, 2016
And what about alcohol? Not like it causes almost equal numbers of deaths through disease and huge strain on the NHS. No, it’s too socially acceptable.
Catherine Callaghan May 20, 2016
I’m proud to say that I was part of the legal team that represented the Government in the High Court challenge brought by the tobacco companies against the plain packaging legislation. It was a huge team effort by a large number of people, but it has paid off. It was a particularly sweet and poignant victory for me personally, as I am also a cancer survivor and had only been back at work for 2 years when I took on this case.
Alan Hinton May 20, 2016
I gave up smoking a long time ago, but when I did smoke, no amount of nasty pictures or plain packaging would have stopped me. Also, the “Glitzy” packaging or “cool image” advertising did not, and would not influence me to smoke in the first place. I hope the new campaign works and smoking is eventually banished forever, but until then the government should take the tax off of things like fuel and foods, and put up the tax on non essentials like cigarettes and alcohol.
Nick Peel May 20, 2016
Thanks for your comment.
The new regulations also cover rolling tobacco, so pouches produced from today will also have to be standardised.
We hope you’ll be pleased to hear that youth smoking rates are actually declining. But as you point out, it’s vital that measures such as standardised packaging are brought into force so that these rates continue to fall.
Nick, Cancer Research UK
John Deaville May 20, 2016
Whilst I appreciate and applaud the decision to make packs uncool this alone is not enough.We as nation need to make more effort to dissuade others from smoking. It is said by some that reformed smokers are the most vocal regarding stopping others. If this is the case the non smokers that are reformed are the strongest source of campaign available. We will not prevent Cancer by stopping smoking but every one that we do is a bonus.
Hilary Streeter May 19, 2016
I think that this is brilliant news ! However, what is going to happen to loose tobacco in pouches – our office is near a 6th Form College and what seems like 70% of 16-18 yr olds make rollups and smoke like mad ! it’s shocking really shocking – is there an age limit on buying tobacco ? can you please let me know what it is – these young people are so short sighted and stupid it is dreadful to see them in such addiction as surely it is the way you see them so dependant on making and smoking these rollups.
Donna Piercy May 19, 2016
Bring back the adverts that showed what happens to lungs and how they clog then fill up!
Alison McVea May 19, 2016
I support 2 cancer charities with monthly direct debits and regularly give generously on other occasions. But I am a smoker. And I’m sick of being treated like scum and an outcast. I don’t believe I should be allowed to smoke in public places like restaurants but I do believe I should have my right to smoke in peace and while others have their right to overeat and get drunk in public.
seemsensible May 19, 2016
Having smoked for 30 years (back in the day it was “cool” to smoke with glitzy adverts in mags and cinema) and now developed COPD, anything to deter children from taking up this filthy habit is great – just ban all tobacco products and see the nations health improve over time.
Stephen willoughby May 19, 2016
Anything that stops people smoking got to be a step forward . Saving lives and saving the burden on the nhs got to be worth it .Alcohol got to be next.
Eric Pottle May 19, 2016
No matter how drab the packaging may be, if people want to smoke they will , we know smoking kills but no amount of anti smoking campaigning will make any difference whatsoever and will help the smugglers and counterfeiters to line their deep pockets.
Rob May 19, 2016
Quite ridiculous – plays right into the hands of the counterfeiters, whose “business” has now been made much easier. They must be laughing their heads off!
Allen Luther May 19, 2016
Plain Packaging is a total and utter waste of time – if the govt wanted people to stop smoking it would make it illegal to smoke – however, they earn too many tax ££ from them so the hypocrites put the owness on the smokers to stop themselves while the govt pockets the tax – disgusting. Who cares what a cigarette pack looks like?
Rosemary May 19, 2016
So pleased, I know I won’t see the end of smoking in my lifetime but this is one step nearer the ultimate goal.
Emlyn May 19, 2016
I’m really pleased, it’ll help more people to stop and think about what they’re doing to their bodies.