The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a detailed guide for countries considering plain packaging for tobacco products.
The move is part of an ongoing push by WHO to reduce the number of preventable tobacco-related deaths that occur each year.
“Strip back the glamour and glossy packaging that contain tobacco products and what is left? A product that kills almost 6 million people every year,” WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said in a statement to mark World No Tobacco Day 2016.
The WHO publication tries to anticipate every roadblock that countries might face in passing laws to help reduce the public health burden caused by tobacco.
As part of that plan, WHO officials recommend prohibiting the use of logos, colors, and brand images on tobacco packaging. Instead, standard colors and fonts should be used for the packaging and product and brand names — the same for all manufacturers.
Legal challenges are expected. It’s “an example of the tobacco industry’s broader strategy of using litigation to contest regulation, rather than a new phenomenon,” WHO officials say.
And the scientific evidence supporting plain packaging is clearly laid out.
This includes scientific studies, surveys, and focus group studies, along with early evidence from Australia — which introduced plain packaging legislation in 2012 to become the first country to do so.
Australia Sees Drop in Smoking
Several countries have already followed in Australia’s footsteps, including Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France.
Canada’s Liberal government says it will move forward with plans to implement plain packaging measures this year, following three months of public consultations.
Plain packaging is meant to reduce the overall attractiveness of tobacco products. Some countries have adopted drab colors for the packs.
These moves have also increased the noticeability of the current tobacco health warnings that are on the packages.
In addition, banning trademarks, logos, and other design features is intended to prevent companies from using the packaging as a subtle form of advertising. Some health officials say that design features may imply that certain tobacco products are “healthier” than others.
It is still too early to know exactly how much of an impact plain packaging will have on smoking rates in countries that adopt these measures.
But an impact study released last month estimated that between 2012 and 2015 plain packaging in Australia resulted in 108,228 fewer smokers in that country.
Researchers say that plain packaging accounted for one quarter of the overall decline in smoking seen in Australia during that period.
Other studies suggest that plain packaging does, in fact, target the “glamour” of smoking.
A 2013 review in PLOS ONE looked at 25 previous studies and found evidence that plain packaging reduces the appeal of both the packaging and smoking.
Plain Packaging Targets Teens
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 90 percent of cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 18.
Health officials hope that plain packaging will keep some young people from picking up the habit by making cigarette packs more “uncool.”
Focus groups with teens and adults have found that removing the traditional brand elements from the packaging made the products and brands less attractive.
In another focus group, young people reported that plain packaging reduced the positive image of smoking, in general.
Youth have also said that the plainness of the packs made the health warning labels more noticeable.
As health officials expected, tobacco companies have expressed concern over plain packaging laws. Some in the industry have cast doubt on the effectiveness of these measures.
"With products already hidden from view in stores and 75 percent of the pack covered with health warnings, nobody starts smoking because of the pack," Eric Gagnon, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, a unit of British American Tobacco, told Reuters.
Other critics say that plain packaging infringes on a company’s right to freely use its brand and trademarks.
Australia’s plain packaging law has already faced several challenges.
In the United Kingdom, a high court recently rejected the tobacco industry’s attempt to block the implementation of a plain packaging law. The judge ruled that the evidence used by the tobacco industry to support their case was of low quality.
In spite of these wins for governments, some health experts expect more challenges by the tobacco industry.
“I can’t think of a major initiative that the tobacco companies have not challenged,” Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, told the Toronto Star.