Tobacco companies are designing cigarette packs to resemble bottles of perfume or with lids that flip open like a lighter to lure young people into smoking.
Research published yesterday reveals the lengths to which the industry has gone to make its packs attractive to new generations of smokers as opportunities for promoting its products have been progressively reduced.
Responding to last week's launch of a public consultation on tobacco packaging by the Department of Health, Cancer Research UK said the findings provided "a chilling insight" into the power of branding and marketing by the tobacco industry.
The research shows children aged from six to 11 are drawn to the slickly presented packs, responding with remarks such as, "It makes you feel you're in a wonderland of happiness", "It reminds me of a Ferrari" and "Yeah, pink, pink, pink." Jean King, director of tobacco control for the charity, said: "Children are drawn to the colourful and slick designs without having a full understanding of how deadly the product is inside the pack. It is time to end the packet racket."
The range of designs has proliferated over the last decade, since print and billboard advertising of tobacco was banned 10 years ago. Long, slender cigarettes contained in pastel coloured packs indicating femininity, style and sophistication are targeted at young women. Packs of 14 cigarettes are designed to look like packs of 20 but sell at a lower price.
Tobacco companies have admitted that packaging is key to promoting their products. An internal memo from Philip Morris obtained by researchers read: "When you don't have anything else packaging is our marketing."
Cancer Research UK yesterday launched an appeal for signatures to its petition calling for the removal of all branding from tobacco packaging.
Eight focus groups of 15-years-olds assembled by the charity showed clear differences between boys and girls when asked to pick their favourite pack. Girls chose Silk Cut and Vogue Superslims which they related to perfume, make-up and chocolate. Boys preferred Marlbro Bright Leaf, Lambert and Butler and B&H slide packs which suggested maturity, popularity and confidence.
The charity has designed a standardised pack, coloured olive brown, carrying government health warnings and a covert marking as protection against counterfeiters. Teenagers shown the pack described it as "boring and smelly." One said: "God, are my lungs this colour as well?"
Professor Robert West, director of tobacco research at University College London, said lighter coloured packs were perceived as healthier and the presence of branding reduced the impact of health warnings. He said: "Tobacco companies claim they don't market their products to children. But the truth is their products are attractive to children. This is about protecting children."
Around 20 per cent of adults in the UK smoke and each percentage point reduction could prevent 3,000 deaths, he said. Australia is to introduce plain packs from December but is facing a legal challenge from the industry. France, Turkey, Hong Kong and Brunei are reviewing their policy and New Zealand has said it favours plain packs in principle.
Jaine Chisholm Caunt, secretary-general of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, said: "There is no reliable evidence that plain packaging will reduce rates of youth smoking."