Editorial: Smokers don't give a fag about plain packaging

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Diehard smokers must be accustomed to the legislative insult by now. Banished from public places, taxed mercilessly, assailed with simple health warnings, assumed to be helpless victims of tobacco companies, they are now to be saved from branded packaging.

The Government has been persuaded to follow Australia's decision requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packs.

The theory seems to be that if all brands are forced into the same style of packet - perhaps a dirty light brown, dominated by health alerts and grisly pictures, the manufacturer identified in small type of a standard font - smoking will lose much of its remaining appeal. This must be the insult to trump them all.

Tobacco companies maintain plain packs will do nothing to reduce smoking and it is hard to disagree. Their business is not one of those that has to compete on artificial brand distinctions with a necessarily identical product. Smokers discern different blends and so long as they can find their preferred brand they are unlikely to care about the packet.

Social science claims to have found that cigarette packaging has some effect on younger people. A recently published paper was based on group discussions and interviews with young smokers and non-smokers when they were shown plain white packs with prominent health warnings. They offered observations such as: "It looks so boring", "it's just budget ... it's like, lame". Research of that sort insults everyone's intelligence.

The paper concludes tobacco companies have tried to design brands that appeal to young adults and that it is therefore "logical to assume" that removing those designs would reduce the appeal of smoking for them. Tobacco companies often face this "logic". Their efforts to retain a commercial right are treated as evidence the right is effective and needs to end.

In a vigorous response to proposed plain pack legislation in Australia the industry went so far as to threaten to slash the price of cigarettes if it was passed. Price, not packaging, is the most effective weapon against smoking, as the anti-smoking campaign well knows.

Fortunately, the price response was only a threat. When the legislation was passed, one company found a less harmful way to reply. Winfield put a line of cigarettes on the French market in packets branded with a leaping Kangaroo and carrying the slogan, "an Australian favourite".

Humour is the proportionate response for a heavy-handed policy that will probably have minimal effect on the industry's profits or the incidence of smoking. Plain packs seem unlikely to bring the anti-smoking campaign much closer to its goal of a smokefree New Zealand by 2025. That goal, endorsed by the Government, could require much more drastic steps, especially in taxation.

A working paper produced in the Ministry of Health is said to suggest raising the cost of cigarettes to $100 a pack in order to reach the target.

The Maori Party seems particularly determined on the issue. With 44 per cent of Maori still smoking, more than twice the proportion overall, the party makes no apology for tax increases that hit the poor hardest.

A 12 per cent excise increase in 2010 is reckoned to have lowered tobacco sales by 10 per cent over the following year. Price is clearly the weapon that works, the only feature of a cigarette packet that counts.

- NZ Herald

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