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Smoke signals: Will plain packaging cause cigarette sales to fall or will minimalist designs have a cachet in their own right?

Chloe Hamilton weighs up the no-frills approach
  • @chloehamilton

As MPs bicker over cigarette branding in the Commons and anti-smoking campaign groups front the plain packaging crusade in an attempt to discourage young smokers, I'm reminded of a university friend of mine who used to carry around a delightful little decorated tin, packed with tobacco, filters, and papers. Any branded baccy she bought was quickly deposited into the container because she thought it was more fashionable to roll her own. No brands in sight. Everyone was doing it, she said.

Though all attempts to make cigarettes less appealing should be celebrated, I worry that dressing fags up like forbidden fruit will have the reverse effect to the one intended. If implemented, I envisage plain packaging acquiring a kind of cachet; a kind of outlawed cool that would make it oh-so-appealing to youngsters. After all, it's not that kids are attracted to the brands themselves; it's that they're fixated by the way they're perceived by their peers when wearing, drinking, or eating the branded items. That's why my friend chose to keep her tobacco in an unbranded box. It was cooler.

The Government has so far delayed a decision on plain packaged cigarettes, with David Cameron saying in July they wanted more time to see whether the policy had worked in Australia, which introduced plain packaging almost a year ago.

A sample of Australian smokers, who were polled in November 2012, before the legislation was rolled out countrywide, showed that smokers who bought unbranded packets were 66 per cent more likely to think the cigarettes inside were of a poorer quality, and were 70 per cent more likely to say they found them less satisfying.

Early indications also showed smokers smoking cigarettes from unbranded packaging were 81 per cent more likely to have considered quitting at least once a day during the previous week. Having said that, although in Australia cigarettes are sold without brand logos, the packaging is far from unblemished. Against a greenish brown background are graphic health warnings and gruesome photographs of smoking-related conditions.

In the UK, Cancer Research is urging the Government that no plain means no gain. In March, its executive director of policy and information, Sarah Woolnough, said: "Replacing slick, brightly coloured packs that appeal to children with standard packs displaying prominent health warnings is a vital part of efforts to protect health. Reducing the appeal of cigarettes with plain, standardised packs will give millions of children one less reason to start smoking."

But teenagers are faced with a barrage of pictures every day of their favourite celebrities enjoying a cigarette: a photo uploaded to Instagram showing Miley Cyrus with a cigarette drooping provocatively from her lipstick-laden lips; one of the lost boys in One Direction nipping out of rehearsals for a crafty fag; or Kate Moss and her cohorts stumbling out of a Mayfair club, cigs protruding from their puckered lips.

Arguably, it's the glamorization of the deadly habit that tempts teenagers into taking up smoking, more so than cigarettes sold in attractive packaging. One photo of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's is enough to make even the most abstinent among us reach for a cigarette holder, and I'm sure we're all guilty of pretending to smoke candy sticks when we were younger, copying nearby adults who were dragging seductively on their ciggies.

Of course, that's not to say the young aren't attracted to the designs on cigarette packaging (isn't that the only reason people smoke menthol cigarettes? A green packet! What a novelty!), but let's not do our young people a disservice by thinking them so superficial they will be deterred simply by a lack of pretty colours. These kids are creative. Plain packaged cigarettes might just become the next big thing.