Wednesday 9 March 2011

Plain packaging won't affect tobacco use or the numbers taking up smoking


The Department of Health under its supposedly Conservative minister, Andrew Lansley, is proposing to require cigarettes to be sold in plain packages and probably for displays of cigarettes to be outlawed. The purpose of this we’re told is:

"The evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers, so it makes sense to consider having less attractive packaging. It's wrong that children are being attracted to smoke by glitzy designs on packets.

"We would prefer it if people did not smoke and adults will still be able to buy cigarettes, but children should be protected from the start.

"The levels of poor health and deaths from smoking are still far too high, and the cost to the NHS and the economy is vast. That money could be used to educate our children and treat cancer," Mr Lansley said.

Now I’m not sure quite what all this is about or, indeed, whether the so-called evidence actually exists – I certainly couldn’t find it. However, unlike the doctors and bureaucrats crawling over the airwaves frothing with excitement about these proposals, I do know a thing or two about marketing and branding (having been Account Planning Director of a leading direct marketing agency and having spent six years writing management implications pieces in the Journals of Consumer Marketing and Product & Brand Management).

Firstly, brands do not act to recruit customers to a given product – we choose to buy the product and then we select the brand. Nobody starts buying bread because they saw a Warburton’s ad – they buy bread because, well, they want bread! What the brand provides is a heuristic – a short cut, if you will – allowing the consumer to make a choice quickly and confidently. What we do know is that it is the search for a benefit that makes consumers choose to buy a product rather than the shininess of the brand presentation.  Or is you prefer: we buy bread because we want to eat it not because the advert featured a brass band playing chunks from the New World Symphony!

Secondly, packaging serves two purposes – identification and appeals to impulse. In the first instance we put our product into easily identified packaging as part of that heuristic, as a quick means of identifying our particular version of a given product. And, where purchase is often impulse driven, we use packaging to make the product stand out from other similar products. So yes packaging can assist purchase – but only where it isn’t a considered purchase. Sadly for Mr Lansley and his pals, tobacco isn’t an impulse purchase – we have to make a choice to buy and ask someone for the product. We can’t just grab 20 Regal from the countline display! Thus the only impact of plain packaging will be to increase confusion and error (they all look the same) and slow down the purchase process by making selection by the shop assistant more difficult.

And thirdly, smokers are going to buy tobacco. Put it in plain packets or wrap it in shiny gold tissue paper, it doesn’t make a difference – the smoker will go to the counter and ask for the product she wants. And the smoker will still ask for a brand – Benson & hedges, Marlboro’ or whatever – as that is the heuristic, the short cut allowing the person serving to meet that customers requirements. What will change – which suits big tobacco fine – is that levels of switching between brands will reduce. In fact the same effect that banning advertising had on consumption (and why it was the media and advertising industry that opposed the ban far more vigorously than did the tobacco manufacturers).

My main concerns in all this – leaving aside the issue of personal rights – is that, if the aims are twofold: first to increase rates of smoking cessation and second to reduce rates of smoking adoption, then we are barking up the wrong tree. By way of illustration, between 2003 and 2005 all forms of tobacco advertising in the UK were banned. If the arguments for a ban were correct – less tobacco use and fewer tobacco users – we would have expected the rate of tobacco consumption to accelerate. However, the ban (like the smoking ban in public spaces) had no discernible impact on the long-standing decline in use.  In fact, as this chart shows the reduction has slowed almost to a stop – the ban did not do what its advocates claimed.

 And we should remember that tobacco consumption figures get more and more inaccurate with each passing year and with every duty increase.

In 2004, it was widely accepted that around 25 per cent of all cigarettes and as much as 75 per cent of hand-rolling tobacco consumed in the UK were non-UK duty paid. Independent retailers put the cost to them of this trade at £1.2 billion per annum in sales. In 1999, a study showed that smuggling cost the Treasury £2.5 billion in lost revenue. 

That is pretty much a guess and today's situation has got worse and the tobacco business is become less and less legal, less protected and more dangerous. And plain packaging make counterfeiting more likely, smuggling easier and, coupled with ever more draconian controls on normal retail sales, will result in yet more of the trade shifting from supermarket and corner shop to white van and sixth floor council flat. Where of course, the sale jostles for position with stolen goods, counterfeits and illegal drugs!



Anonymous said...

"to the white van" - and ironically, where it will be easier for the underage to buy their tobacco, since the counterfeit and underground trade isn't about to check ages the way the legal trade does, thus creating the exact opposite of what the law's stated intentions were in the first place. I guess the MPs actually want to increase the number of underage smokers, is the only reasonable conclusion I can think of.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Great article. Tobacco control lives on lies, and this is just another one. As you say, tobacco companies were quite happy that advertising was banned since they could keep a hell of a lot of money which they were forced to use in order to protect market share.

Packaging and display has always been about changing the brand people smoke, not about making them start. The tobacco industry is awash with liquidity nowadays thanks to having the burden of advertising costs lifted.

I'm sure they're probably not overly worried about the current proposals either, except for the fact that they will know this will encourage smugglers and counterfeiters.

Lansley a grade A fool.