Study: Smokers would rather quit than buy drab cigarette packs

In the most significant change to U.S. cigarette packs in 25 years, the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday released nine new warning labels that depict in graphic detail the negative health effects of tobacco use. AP video. (June 21)

Part of smoking's allure is the bright-colored packages in which cigarettes are contained, but packs of plain-wrapped smokes so turned off some purchasers in Australia, they were eager to kick the habit, a new analysis has found.

Drab olive green packaging emblazoned by law with stark smoking warnings -- and graphic images -- are now on all Australian tobacco products. Manufacturers are required to produce the same colored packages, identical type face and disturbing pictures of smoking's consequences covering three-quarters of the pack.

"The way in which products are marketed can have an impact on how people perceive them," said Patricia Folan, director of the Center for Tobacco Control at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Manhasset.


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She said it's intriguing how packaging transformed Australian smokers' perception of their cigarettes, even though the product remained unchanged. Smokers said cigarettes from generic packs lacked their familiar taste.

So far, Australia is the only country to take the controversial step of eliminating appealing packaging. Legislators there approved the law in December.

In an Australian study of 536 people, nearly three-quarters of whom smoked cigarettes from plain-wrap packs and 27 percent from branded packages, researchers in Victoria found that 81 percent of plain-pack users said they were willing to quit.

About 66 percent of these smokers said their cigarettes were of poorer quality than they had been before the transition to generic packages. Plain-pack smokers were also 70 percent more likely to say they found the taste less satisfying.

The research was published in the British Medical Journal.

Folan said dazzling colors have defined cigarette brands in the United States since early in the last century. Reds and greens have been particularly evident, she said.

The power of packaging

Packaging is very powerful but consumers are easily flimflammed, writes historian Allan M. Brandt, author of "The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America" (Basic Books, 2007).

Brandt, of Harvard University, noted that even in the early 20th century it was recognized that smokers bought brands rather than cigarettes alone -- and brands have specific colors and designs that catch the eye.

Overall, packaging is a central part of tobacco-product appeal, Folan noted.

For instance, in 2007, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, she said, began manufacturing a brand of Camel cigarettes in this country, aimed at luring more women to a brand long associated with men. The women's-oriented Camel brand featured a black-colored pack, a smaller camel insignia and a bright jewel-colored border -- hot pink, for example, or emerald green.

Camel hasn't been the only one. Phillip Morris in 2008 introduced so-called purse-pack designs in mauve and teal, the package resembling a makeup case.

Wooing women to specific brands has a long and storied past, historians say.

During World War II, Lucky Strike switched from an all-green background with a red bull's-eye to a white field with red center to appeal to more women smokers.

Could it happen here?

With so much history attached to U.S. cigarette packaging, a question mark looms over whether an Australian-style switch to plain wrap would ever occur here, Folan said.

U.S. tobacco products don't even carry graphic photos, despite federal health officials three years ago endorsing a grisly gallery of images, which were supposed to go on packs last year.

Major tobacco manufacturers successfully argued the images were a First Amendment violation, and an appeals court struck down the government's requirement.

In Brooklyn, Audrey Silk, founder of CLASH, Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, said even if generic packaging became law, it would not influence U.S. smokers to quit.

She said the Australian study was rigged.

"This study was all about coming up with statistics that were favorable to the anti-smoking agenda," she said.

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