More on plain packaging

The Herald reports:

A new study has discredited the tobacco industry’s assertion that there is no proof on cigarette packs reduces the appeal of smoking.

How can you discredit something, that hasn’t been asserted? This is a classic red herring.

As far as I have observed no one disputes that numerous surveys have shown smokers say they find branded packs more appealing than plain packs. This study has reached the same conclusion as several others. It is nothing new.

Scientists from Canada, the United States and Brazil conducted a study of 640 young Brazilian women to determine if cigarettes had the same appeal when presented in plain packaging.

“The women in this study rated branded packs as more appealing, more stylish and sophisticated than the plain packs,” said study leader David Hammond of the University of Waterloo, Canada.

I am sure they do.

However the key question is not about whether packaging makes a particular brand of cigarettes more appealing, but whether plain packaging will reduce the proportion of people who smoke or the amount people smoke. And as far as I can see this research does not answer that question.

I personally welcome effective anti-smoking measures. I do regard tobacco as different to alcohol. Around 95% of the smokers I know want to give up smoking, and have tried to do so. None of my friends who are drinkers want to give up drinking alcohol (except for that 48 to 72 hour period after a big night out).

With plain packaging I can accept the argument that until you try it, you will never be able to measure its effectiveness. But this is an argument to trial it, not to implement it blindly.  A plain packaging requirement does create a precedent, and already some advocate it should also apply to alcoholic drinks and even to fast food. That slope might get very slippery.  Any decision to introduce it should be based on proven success at reducing smoking – not hope.

There are two ways it can be trialled. One is to let another country do it first, such as Australia, and see what happens. However that will only work if Australia doesn’t implement any other measures at the same time. If they put up the excise tax also, then it will not be possible to know if any reduction in smoking rates is due to the excise tax increase (which has proven success) or plain packaging.

So my preference again is to have a geographic trial in New Zealand, such as have plain packaging in the South Island for a two year trial. Then measure any change in the smoking rates and quantity of tobacco sold in both the North and the South Island, and see if the South Island change is statistically significant.

This would be a win-win. If it shows there is a statistically significant difference, then that trial will be used globally as evidence to introduce plain packaging. If the trial shows no significant difference, then New Zealand avoids implementing a measure that sets a disturbing precedent and doesn’t actually achieve anything.


A reader has sent me this, which is a graphic of the current packs used in Brazil. They are vastly different to those currently allowed in NZ. No rotting eyeballs and the like on the packs. It is a no brainer that people will say those packs are attractive. That is, as stated above, a different question to whether they may more people smoke, or smokers smoke more. And as NZ packs look nothing like the above, using the results to argue for a change in NZ is silly.

Again – I am not against plain packaging if it works in reducing the number of people who smoke, or the amount people smoke. I just want any decision to be based on a proper scientifically conducted trial with a control group.

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