Plain packets help smokers quit by killing brand identities

23 February 2017:

By Alice Klein

The proof is in the packaging. Making all cigarette packets look the same reduces the positive feelings smokers associate with specific brands and encourages quitting, Australian research shows.

The findings come ahead of the UK and Ireland introducing plain tobacco packaging in May.

Australia was the first nation to introduce such legislation in December 2012. Since then, all cigarettes have been sold in plain olive packets with standard fonts and graphic health warnings.
The primary goal was to make cigarettes less appealing so that people would not take up smoking in the first place. But an added bonus has been the number of existing smokers who have ditched the habit.

Between 2010 and 2013, the proportion of daily smokers in Australia dropped from 15.1 to 12.8 per cent – a record decline. The number of calls to quit helplines also increased by 78 per cent after the policy change.

Brand betrayal
This drop in smoking popularity can be partly explained by a loss of brand affinity, says Hugh Webb at the Australian National University in Canberra.
People derive a sense of belonging and identity from brands, he says. For example, you may see yourself as a “Mac person” or a “PC person” and feel connected to other people who choose that brand. “Marketers are extremely savvy about cultivating these brand identities.”

After tobacco advertising was banned in Australia in 1992, the only way to foster brand stereotypes was by using fonts and imagery on cigarette packs that appeal to specific groups. But Webb’s research suggests that since plain packaging was introduced, brand identity and positive brand stereotypes have significantly declined.

Webb and his colleagues surveyed 178 smokers immediately before and seven months after the policy change and found that they were significantly less likely to adhere to any particular brand after the change. They were also less likely to rate typical smokers of that brand as having positive traits like trendiness or sophistication.

This loss of brand identity also correlated with smoking reductions and increased intentions to quit.

“We typically think that the primary drivers for why people smoke are individual personality traits or biological factors,” Webb says. “But this understates the symbolic power of brand identities and brand stereotypes in maintaining smoking behaviour.”

Plain packaging has been highly successful so far, says Simon Chapman at the University of Sydney. “It strips the ability of tobacco companies to propose to people that buying brand X will confer all sorts of interesting qualities to them.”

Moreover, warnings that plain packaging would increase counterfeit cigarettes and fuel smuggling rings have proven unfounded, research shows. “So far, there haven’t been any drawbacks,” Webb says.

Journal reference: Addictive Behaviors Reports, DOI: 10.1016/j.abrep.2017.02.003