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UK government’s delay on plain tobacco packaging: how much evidence is enough?

On bmj.com today, senior research fellow asks how much more evidence is needed before the make a decision on plain tobacco packaging.

In July, the government announced that there would be a delay on the decision on plain packaging, until findings from Australia emerge. The first study from Australia published since plain packaging came into effect found that smokers who used plain packs perceived their 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”.

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.

Moodie draws on the findings from the Australian study which he says supports one of the UK Government’s public health policy priorities, namely to encourage smokers to quit, but questions whether they are enough to influence UK policy. He says that there is a “rapidly growing on this issue” which is consistent in its findings: plain packaging would reduce appeal; increase the effectiveness of health warnings and reduce the ability of packaging to mislead consumers about the harmful effects of smoking.

The European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety supports pictorial health warnings covering 75% of the front and back of tobacco packaging, which should help reduce “pack appeal, enhance the visibility of warnings and disrupt ’ ability to communicate with consumers”. However, Moodie argues 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”. He points to the Framework Convention on , which suggests that “only plain packaging can do this”.

Moodie says 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. He adds however, that there is no guarantee, “this decline will continue if a tobacco control strategy is not sustained”.

He concludes that as packaging is the “key marketing and communications tool for tobacco companies” since advertising, promotion and sponsorship was banned, “standardised packaging would appear to be a logical next step”.


Plain tobacco packaging: the “logical next step”?

BMJ 2013;347:f4786 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f4786