Plain and Standardized Packaging – Why it Matters

Plain packaging vs Fancy packaging

Remember when you were partying like it was 1999 (because it was) at your New Year’s Eve millennium/Y2K/Newmanium party? We were ringing in the future. The old-timey 1900s were coming to a close and it was time to usher in the 21st Century. And what do you know, things have been progressing quite nicely in some areas. Self-driving cars? Check. Video phones? They’re practically old news. Hoverboards? You better believe it.

But hold on now.

We have some work to do. It’s 2018 and we STILL have an 18% smoking rate. We spend billions of dollars on health care for the 45,000 people who die every year of smoking related diseases. This is not the future I signed up for.

So it’s time to pull out all the stops. Canada, along with a number of other countries around the world, has signed up to end smoking within the next 20 years. This is the Endgame, people. I wrote about it here last month and in some broad strokes, said a little bit about what we can do to get there. Now I want to break down one of those measures: plain and standardized packaging. I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground and a lot of what I’ve heard is something along the lines of, “Who cares about cigarette packaging? That won’t do anything! Who’s going to quit because of a package??”

Alright, I hear you. We love to think that we’re uninfluenceable. (I don’t care what spellcheck says, that’s a word.) How could packaging make such a difference that it’s going to bring our smoking rate into negligible numbers?

The quick answer: It’s not. Not by itself, of course. But we’re at the point where, if we don’t do everything we can, we’re not going to be doing enough. So implementing plain and standardized packages among a number of other measures CAN actually move the needle significantly. Now let me give you the longer answer, but as briefly as I can. (I want you to read the whole thing before you get bored of me.)

  1. To Big Tobacco companies, packaging matters.

How do we know? Because they told us it does! In a backhanded, tricky, trying-to-make-us-think-the-opposite kind of way, the tobacco industry has told us everything we need to know about plain and standardized packaging and it’s got them running scared. The industry spends almost $10 BILLION a year on marketing their products in the United States alone. It’s not quite Dr. Evil’s price tag, but it’s getting there. Listen, no one is spending that much money on marketing if the public wasn’t influenced by it.

Big Tobacco wanted so badly to convince everybody that plain packaging wouldn’t work, that they carried out a huge, nationwide campaign based on confusing misinformation, urging Canadians to tell the government that they opposed plain packaging. Not exactly the actions of someone who is unconcerned. The pack means everything to tobacco companies in Canada because there is almost nowhere else they’re allowed to advertise. It’s the mini-billboard that goes everywhere with their customers and often comes out 20+ times per day. They’ve been fighting the whole idea of plain packaging tooth and nail for years, a clear sign that it makes a difference to their bottom line.

  1. It’s Plain AND Standardized.

Wait, what? What do those 2 words even mean in this context? I actually know, I’m just being dramatic for effect; I’m going to tell you. Plain and standardized packaging means that everything about every pack, every brand and every type of cigarette is exactly the same, with just a few boring exceptions. No distinctive features, colours, logos or font. Nothing anyone would consider attractive. Every package is the same with 75% of the package covered with pictorial health warnings and the rest a drab olive green. Only big, clunky 80s style “slide and shell packs.” Compare this to the so-called “accessory packs” and it’s no longer something to flaunt or something that would draw new customers to try for being “cute and stylish.” No more free advertising in public; you can bet dollars to donuts those packs are staying hidden away. After all, would you want to look at this while you’re out to lunch in public?

  1. It’s about Prevention

According to the most common argument I’ve heard, “NO ONE” is going to quit because of a plain package. Well, not sure if that’s true since all the health messaging includes a national quit support line, but it’s not just about quitting. It’s about preventing people from starting in the first place.

Remember that ‘standardized’ also includes the cigarette itself. No more gimmicky smokes like the sexy superslim cigarettes specifically marketed to young women to evoke a feeling of stylishness, liberation or sensuality. All of those coffin nails will have to conform to the same size requirements as the other standardized cigarettes. The Minister for Health also indicated that health warnings on the cigarettes themselves were being considered. For the young person seeking to build an image by adding cigarettes to their social identity, that’s not cool, bro - not cool at all.

So there you have it. Plain and standardized packaging is coming to Canada likely within the year. Whether I’ve convinced you or not, if you have something to say about it, the Canadian government wants to hear about it. There is an open consultation period on plain and standardized tobacco products until September 6, 2018. And you can rest assured - Big Tobacco will be pulling out all the stops to oppose it, even though it “won’t make a difference.”

Sure it won’t.


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