As much as the connection between cigarettes and irreverent cool has been hammered into our collective psyche, it turns out it can quickly be outdone: One year after a law passed in 2012 mandating that home-grown tobacco be packaged plainly with huge health warnings, researchers have found that smokers of the plain cigarettes are more likely to perceive the experience as less satisfying than those who smoke the branded kind.
In 2012, Australia became the first country to demand that its domestic cigarettes be placed in plain, brown packaging, with gruesome health warnings taking up 75% of the box. Before the law was enforced, some cigarette companies experimented with slight alterations. One company, called British American Tobacco Australia, printed the line, "It’s what’s inside that counts," on the lid, much to the ire of the Australian government.
But in the months during the country’s transitional period between branded and plain packaging, a survey of 536 Australian smokers found that 30% of the plain pack smokers perceived the quality of their cigarettes as lower, compared to 20.1% of branded cigarette smokers. More than 26% of plain-packers reported less satisfaction with their unchanged cigarettes, compared to 14.9% of the brand loyalists.
One of the authors of the study, Melanie Wakefield, who is also director of the Centre for Behavioral Research in Cancer in Victoria, suggested in a 2007 paper that cigarette branding alone created a set of self-fulfilled expectations, or "halo" effect. "The wider consumer marketing literature shows convincingly that the taste of food and drinks is able to be manipulated by branding and labeling," she wrote. "The expectation influences how a person thinks a product might taste, which then influences one’s taste perceptions and liking when the product is actually consumed."
Researchers at the Centre also looked at how smokers viewed the government’s heavy-handed attempt to influence their habit. But of the plain pack smokers, only 32.3% of people saw the dangers of smoking as "exaggerated," compared to 30.9% of the branded smokers. Even more significant was the fact that some 46% of plain pack smokers had thought about the negative effects of smoking often in the week leading up to the survey, while only 36% of branded pack users did the same. Some 68.8% of the plain pack smokers reported that they were seriously considering quitting in the next six months, compared to 57.1% of brand loyal smokers.
But what if brand-loyal smokers were less likely to be swayed by public health messaging in the first place? As the study notes, "some of the relationships found between pack type and quitting outcomes could be due to those more interested in quitting being less likely to avoid or even to seek out the plain packs." Still, almost 75% of smokers in the representative sample—the vast majority—were smoking from the plain packs as tobacco companies shifted to the new rule.
"Even if avoidance among those not initially interested in quitting did occur, it may actually contribute to increased quitting thoughts and activity, resulting in a positive net effect of plain packaging when combined with the overall effect of smoking from a plain pack," Wakefield tells Co.Exist.
The British government had been considering a similar model based on Australia’s, but decided to chuck the decision in May. In the lead up to the abandoned proposal, the Guardian reported that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—one of America’s most powerful, corporate-backed lobbying groups supported by the Koch brothers—had begun pressuring the U.K. and other countries that were considering plain packaging.
"There is no compelling evidence that the Plain Packaging proposal will achieve its stated objectives: to reduce the initiation of tobacco use and overall tobacco consumption and to remove the package’s ability to mislead and deceive consumers," the group wrote in a press release opposing the Australian law in 2011. ALEC also added that plain packaging would exploit "the poor, elderly and most dependent smokers" in the Australian government’s dastardly plan to improve health outcomes.
Not so, according to the Australian study. "While further research is needed to assess the long-term effects on smokers as well as effects on youth, the introductory effects we observed are consistent with the broad objectives of the legislation," Wakefield says.