A proposed standardized cigarette package is displayed in front of a variety of cigarette packages available today in Canada. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Can new plain cigarette packs be effective in reducing smoking?

Cigarette packs in Canada will soon all look quite similar, as federal rules will make drab brown the default colour for tobacco brands next week.

From November 9, all retailers will have to remove their logos and attractive features from packaging and “only the permitted text may be displayed on the packages, in a standard location, font, colour and size,” wrote Health Canada in an email to RCI. “Cigarette packaging will be standardized to a slide-and-shell format, and the appearance of cigarettes and other tobacco products will be standardized as well.”

Some of these plain-packaged cigarettes have already started to appear on shelves but retailers will still have a 90-day window to offload their remaining inventory.

For Health Canada, “reducing the appeal of tobacco products is an important step toward protecting Canadians, particularly youth, from inducements to using tobacco products and from the consequent dependence on them.”

Despite decades of effort to reduce tobacco use, tobacco is still the leading preventable cause of premature death in Canada, killing half of all long-term users.Health Canada to RCI

The “slide and shell” package format which will provide a wider surface area that will display the largest health warnings in the world, says the Canadian Cancer Society. (Courtesy of Health Canada)

The regulation is supported by health experts and advocates such as Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, who sees it as “the best plain packaging requirements in the world.”

As an example, the “slide and shell” package format which will provide a wider surface area that will display the largest health warnings in the world, says Cunningham. This new format will become mandatory in 2021.

“We strongly support the plain packaging regulations as they are essential to protect Canadian youth from tobacco companies,” says Rob Cunningham in a news release. “Tobacco is addictive and deadly and should not be sold in packages made to be more attractive. Tobacco packaging should not function as mini-billboards promoting tobacco use.”

Cunningham adds that Canada will be ahead of other countries in banning extra-long and “slim” cigarettes, “thus eliminating a type of cigarette targeting women and associating smoking with slimness and fashionability.”

The new regulation is intended to discourage people from smoking, especially young people. Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Targeting youth

With this regulation, Health Canada hopes to reduce the number of people who start smoking, especially young people.

“The vast majority of smokers begin smoking by adolescence or young adulthood,” said Health Canada in an email. “In Canada, 86% of current adult daily smokers had smoked their first cigarette by the age of 18. In 2017 alone, 91,000 Canadians became daily cigarette smokers.”

Research shows that packages have become powerful branding tools to appeal to consumers said University of Waterloo psychology professor Geoffrey Fong to The Canadian Press.

“The package designs (are) really amazingly glitzy and very attractive, especially to kids,” said Fong, the founder and chief principal investigator of the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project.

Cigarettes sit on a shelf in this picture illustration taken in Montreal, March 11, 2012. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The professor adds that some packaging are designed to make consumers believe that some brands are less harmful than others. He justifies his point by saying studies indicate that cigarette packages with light colours and white spaces are seen to have lower health risk than dark-toned products.

In his research, he also found that plain packaging has a real effect on reducing the attractiveness of cigarettes to smokers.

“This measure is going to have an important difference, especially over time,” said Cunningham to The Canadian Press.

We will have kids who will grow up not exposed to branded packages.Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society
Proven results in other countries

France is one of 16 other countries that have already implemented a neutral packaging policy for cigarettes.

The regulation came into force on January 1, 2017.

According to Santé Publique France, the national health agency, “smokers who are embarrassed to take their package out in plain sight because of its appearance have doubled in number in 2017 (12%) compared to 2016 (6%).”

New cigarette packs, plain with unbranded packaging and with the health warning, “Smoking Kills” are displayed for sale by a tobacconist as part of anti-smoking legislation in a French ‘Tabac’ in Paris, France. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

By comparing smokers’ perceptions before the introduction of the new package (2016) and after (2017), the agency also found that “the proportion of smokers who say they like the look of their cigarette package has been divided by three” and “the appreciation of the package has particularly declined among 18-24 year olds.”

Australia was the first country to implement neutral packaging laws on December 1, 2012. A review in 2016 found that plain packaging “has helped to reduce smoking and passive smoking in Australia, is having a positive impact and is expected to continue reducing smoking rates,” says the Australian Department of Health.

Tobacco product packaging for the same product illustrates the before, right, and after standardized rules came into effect in Australia. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Independent studies in both countries show that the new regulations have significantly reduced the number of smokers, while taking into account other parallel measures, such as increasing taxes on cigarettes.

However, several studies commissioned by tobacco companies conclude that plain packaging has no significant effect on consumption.

A complex change for tobacco manufacturers

Some companies such as Rothmans, Benson & Hedges do not oppose the new regulation but will have to adapt their product until the point they will need to change the names.

For example, Belmont Silver will be known as Belmont Select under the new rules for brand names prohibiting references to colours or filter characteristics.

This change could affect sales, as consumers and retailers could be confused, but the company is doing its best to ensure a smooth transition.

An example of plain packaging as required by the new regulations. (Courtesy of Health Canada)

However, others oppose the policy on several fronts. It is the case of Imperial Tobacco Canada said head of regulatory affairs Eric Gagnon to The Canadian Press.

“You’re changing the entire supply chain,” said Gagnon. “It’s not like you just turn a key on and off. You need to change all your artwork, all your equipment, retool all your machines, so obviously, it’s very costly and a very complex operation.”

For Gagnon, the only thing resulting from this regulation will be a boost in illicit sale of tobacco products.

These arguments are shared by other industry members, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has described as “baseless” and “not supported by the evidence.”

WHO has been recommending the adoption of plain packaging since 2008.

To address unique compliance challenges, Health Canada says that some requirements will be phased in over the next two years. All requirements will be fully implemented by February 2022.

RCI with The Canadian Press

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