One Simple Tweak to Cigarette Packs Might Make You Want to Light Up Less

Taking away logos and other branding makes smoking less appealing, especially to young people.

(Photo: Justin Lambert/Getty Images)

Feb 18, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Last night at my local convenience store the man in line in front of me was purchasing cigarettes. “Let me get a pack of reds,” he said to the guy behind the counter.

I’m not a smoker but I knew that he was talking about Marlboros, and sure enough, one of the iconic red-and-white boxes was handed to him. Tobacco companies have long studied how to make their individual brands attractive to consumers, which is why stripping all the logos and pretty colors from the packaging and just leaving the health warnings is a commonsense way to lessen the appeal of the product.

Now a series of research papers published in the journal Addiction suggest that replacing the branding on cigarette packs with plain paper and enlarging the health warning labels could be a deterrent to smoking.

"Arguably, for an addictive product that kills so many of its users, the tobacco industry should consider itself fortunate that, purely through historical precedent, it is allowed to sell its toxic products at all, let alone try to make them attractive through the packaging," wrote Ann McNeill, one of the researchers. "However, it is evidence on the likely public health impact that is the primary basis for the policy on standardised packaging.”

The researchers primarily focused their efforts on Australia. Since 2012, cigarettes have been sold in Oz in plain green packaging with large images that show the negative effects of smoking. Among young people who are just experimenting with smoking, the researchers found that the switch to this kind of packaging made adolescents pay more attention to the health warnings and consequently, less inclined to light up.

The researchers also discovered that because the perceived status of puffing away on a certain brand was removed, young adults hanging out at bars, restaurants, and other entertainment venues were less likely to put their cigarettes out on a table. As a result, smoking in those venues dropped.

For hard-core smokers, this kind of packaging isn't much of a deterrent. Once you're addicted to nicotine, it's notoriously difficult to give up the cigarette habit. But antismoking advocates don't believe that should stop governments from mandating the switch to logo- and color-free wrapping.

“Even if standardized packaging had no effect at all on current smokers and only stopped 1 in 20 young people from being lured into smoking it would save about 2,000 lives each year,” said Addiction's editor-in-chief, Robert West, in a statement.

This spring the British parliament is set to vote on whether plain packaging will be mandated in the U.K. Researchers across the pond are experimenting with paying people to quit lighting up, and doctors have already recommended that cigarettes not be sold to anyone born after 2000, so the vote could succeed. If it does, a person asking for a pack of reds in the U.K. might soon be met with a blank stare.