After various U-turns and accusations that the government was in league with the vested interests of tobacco companies, it appears that the plain packaging of unbranded cigarettes could be on the shelves of British shops by 2015 (see, for example, the Guardian newspaper of the 28th of November 2013).
Clearly, no one can be absolutely clear what the effect of such restrictions on branding and packaging “advertising” might be, still less the knock-on effect on the sale and use of electronic cigarettes.
The case for plain packaging
The principal argument for plain packaging runs along the lines of tobacco smoking being bad for your health; packaging by the tobacco companies, however, represents not just a rivalry between different brands, but also a subtle way of advertising, promoting and encouraging smokers to buy particular tobacco products; removing the opportunity for such advertising, therefore, is likely to reduce the appeal of conventional cigarettes; reduced appeal will result in reduced consumption; and reduced consumption will result in a healthier population; a good thing.
It is no longer just a theoretical argument. For a year now, all cigarettes in Australia have to be sold in plain, unbranded packs (along with more graphic health messages and other warnings and information prominently displayed on each pack). It has been long enough for some of the effects to start trickling through.
The findings of research conducted in the Australian state of Victoria have recently been published in BMJ Open – recording some of the initial reactions of Australian smokers.
Although the sample of smokers questioned was very small (just 536) the majority of smokers using the unbranded packets of cigarettes believed the contents to be a lower quality and less satisfying than the branded packs they had been accustomed to buying. Smokers of unbranded cigarettes were found to give greater thought to quitting and to give this a high priority in their lives.
Most commentators have expressed no surprise at the findings, given the insidious power of persuasion conventionally carried in cigarette packaging and the negative message likely to be conveyed when only a plain packet is presented.
It is this negative message, of course, that represents such bad news for the tobacco companies.
The consequences for electronic cigarettes
Bad news for the tobacco companies, unfortunately, does not necessarily mean good news for the manufacturers of electronic cigarettes.
One of the principal reasons for this is the very mixed message being given by the government in the UK. On the one hand, its position on plain packaging for tobacco products finally seems to be confirming that smoking conventional cigarettes is bad for your health; on the other hand, however, its position is still far less than favourable when it comes to the far less risky, “healthier” alternative, the electronic cigarette.
The British government seems to be falling into step with a European Commission that is hell-bent on making life difficult (to say the least) for e-cig manufacturers, even to the extent of practically outlawing the product. One of the Commission’s recently released notorious “discussion papers”, for example, proposes a ban on electronic cigarettes producing more than 20 milligrams of nicotine per millilitre of vapour or 10 milligrams per unit, as well as a ban on refillable cartomisers or cartridges. Electronic cigarettes containing an e-liquid tasting of tobacco would also be banned.
Quite simply, the powers that be seem to be missing an obvious trick here. If plain packaging for conventional tobacco products is really designed to help smokers quit, then surely there should be a corresponding and equal effort to encourage them to switch to a safer alternative – the electronic cigarette. But don’t hold your breath whilst waiting for any such rational response either from the British government or from the European Commission.
Plain packaging of conventional cigarettes to encourage smokers to quit could represent a massive opportunity for encouraging them to switch to a far safer product – it seems such a tragic waste that that opportunity is being missed.