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Government under pressure as Australian study shows support for plain-packaged cigarettes

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New research on cigarette packaging has prompted discussion by Stirling academics.

‌UK MINISTERS are coming under pressure to make a decision on introducing plain packaging for cigarettes in Britain.

Health campaigners say the move would reduce demand and encourage smokers to quit.

The Westminster Government announced last month that it would delay any decision on plain cigarette packaging until findings from Australia emerge.

Now the first results from Australia – which has introduced plain packaging – show that smokers found plain packaged cigarettes to be “less satisfying and poorer quality” and “were more supportive of plain packaging and more likely to think about and to prioritise quitting”.

Writing in the BMJ, three academics from the University of Stirling  - Dr Crawford Moodie, Professor Linda Bauld, and Martine Stead - ask how much more evidence is needed before the UK Government makes a decision on plain-packaged cigarettes.

They say: “Given that encouraging smokers to stop is a public health policy priority in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, these early findings from Australia provide some support for this aim [of introducing plain packaging]. Whether they are enough to influence UK policy is unclear. They do, however, add to a very rapidly growing body of evidence.”

They add: “Standardised packaging in the UK was first considered as a possible policy measure in the previous Labour government’s consultation on the future of tobacco control in 2008, which cited four studies from North America. By 2011, when the current government launched a consultation on the issue, its evidence review included 37 studies, six of which were from the UK. Since that review at least 12 additional studies have been published, including three more from the UK.

“This growing body of research is consistent in its findings: that plain packaging would reduce the appeal of tobacco products to consumers; would increase the effectiveness of health warnings; and would reduce the ability of packaging to mislead consumers about the harmful effects of smoking.”

Past research shows that desire to quit is a “reliable predictor” of whether someone tries to stop smoking with studies showing that high motivation is an important factor in quitting.

The European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety supports pictorial health warnings covering 75 per cent of the front and back of tobacco packaging, which should help reduce pack appeal, enhance the visibility of warnings and disrupt tobacco companies’ ability to communicate with consumers.

However, the Stirling researchers argue that larger warnings would “not be enough” to prevent manufacturers using the “design of packaging and branding to detract from these warnings” or prevent consumers “being confused about the harms of the products”. They point to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which suggests that “only plain packaging can do this”.

The academics say that most smokers become addicted to smoking in childhood and recent figures show that the habit among children continues to fall in England and has steadily fallen since the introduction of tobacco control measures outlined in the 1998 white paper Smoking Kills. They add however, that there is no guarantee, “this decline will continue if a tobacco control strategy is not sustained”.

The Stirling team conclude: “As packaging has become the key marketing and communications tool for tobacco companies since the ban on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, standardised packaging would appear to be a logical next step.”

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