Will plain packaging attract smokers?

Rodney Hide


Policy debates are best when the fight is between good and evil.

These are the fights that journalists understand. There’s no need to grasp complex trade-offs, opportunity cost or monetary economics. We only need identify the goodies and the baddies.

Goodies support good policy. Baddies oppose it. To know what’s right and good we need only determine who’s saying what. That’s where journalists play their part. They also take it on themselves to make clear who are the goodies and who are the baddies.

So any debate between tobacco companies and health officials and lobbyists should be easy to resolve. Or is it? Australia has been the first country to introduce plain packaging laws for tobacco and New Zealand looks set to follow. The Australian laws come into effect at year’s end and are subject to several legal challenges.

The New Zealand government says it expects to follow Australia and has announced that public consultation will be undertaken this year.

The idea is that plain packets with just a big health warning aren’t cool for young people and therefore serve to reduce the uptake of smoking.

Otago University marketing expert Professor Janet Hoek found that young people said of plain packaged cigarettes: “They don’t look trendy at all...it's just budget...it's like, lame…there isn't a cool colour. It looks so boring.”

Professor Hoek concluded that tobacco companies spend big money to develop brands therefore, "it is logical to assume that decreasing these appeals would, over time, reduce the behaviours they stimulate and support.”

That view is reinforced by tobacco companies being against plain packaging. Their concern must surely be that plain packaging will dry up the next generation of smokers.

But tobacco companies have invested heavily in their brands. Plain packaging largely destroys that investment. The packets will all be the same even though the blend of tobacco inside differs in subtle ways that I don’t understand but which matter to smokers. Smokers have their brand that they smoke and that brand matters to them and to the company that owns it. That’s to be largely destroyed through plain packaging.

Let’s be clear. Tobacco companies have as their prime aim profit. They profit through selling an addictive product that kills. But just because they’re against a policy doesn’t mean that we should all be for it. That simply isn’t logical.

Public health officials and the health lobby have as their goal the health of New Zealanders but having a good and noble goal doesn’t make you always right.

I don’t think we can resolve policy debates by identifying goodies and baddies. We need some evidence that plain packaging works. And that’s where the entire debate falls over. Turns out there’s none.

The expert panel advising the Canadian government concluded that, “Most kids receive their first cigarette from friends. There is no brand choice – the choice is simply to smoke or not to smoke”.

But it’s worth a shot, surely, even if it stops one kid smoking. I am not so sure. What if plain packaging actually increases the uptake of smoking?

The price is already set to rise through tax hikes to $20 a packet. At some point the black market in cigarettes either grown locally or smuggled into the country must become financially attractive to criminals.

I suspect plain packaging makes black market cigarettes all the more likely. The loss of brand recognition also means a loss of distinction between legal and illegal.

Driving cigarettes underground would boost tobacco sales no end. Plain packaging and the black market have certainly worked wonders for cannabis.

• Matthew Hooton is on holiday. He will return next week.

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30 Comments & Questions

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Packaging or not it will certainly make you addictive...perhaps the best solution is to tax them heavily to subsidise the costs of any rehabs.


Being a foolish addicted smoker myself, so most likely have a very one-eyed view ..... I think 90% of NZ folk would not know where to go and buy black market stuff.
With the number of types of lethal drugs being created here and brought into the country, laws have been passed to prohibit them for the health safety of all people. They have not been banned because some-one is making a profit at some-ones expense, because all businesses do this to stay afloat.
If tobacco products were totally banned overnight, people would eventually get over it, I stopped for 5 years and foolishly started again.
Saving in the health sector would more than cover nicotine supplements for us guys.
So even if a very small group of folk got their ciggies through an undisclosed source, so what ?
You either get over nicotine addiction,
or can / could / will die from it.
The Powers That Are, have not got the gonads to do it as the loss of tax would leave a huge deficit in financial income ........ Hmmmmm, money again, huh?
Looks like I wrote a load of rubbish , huh?
At my time of life, I am allowed to :-)


Why should other people "have the gonads to do something" when you won't even do it for yourself?


Why is this blogger given editorial space in the nbr, shouldn't Rodney be looking for a proper job?


Because he writes thoughtful, original pieces. I suggest you try doing the same.


Nature abhors a vacuum, so banning tobacco will not work. That is proven. Education is superior to legislation. Plain wrapping will be good for me as then no-one will be able to tell that I smoke Motueka dark.:)


To state that 'education is superior to legislation' is to acknowledge this concept of 'informed choice' leaves much to be desired. Yet so many tobacco sales occur in spite of this. If nature abhors a vacuum, we should be lamenting the loss of value resulting from tobacco-induced deaths.


So, Rodney doesn't believe plain packaging has any evidence, but accepts the tobacco industry's black market scaremongering, which has no evidence! As everyone knows, it's impossible to prove something works before it's been introduced and evaluated so novel policies, such as plain packaging, need to be assessed using other evidence. In fact, had Rodney chosen to look, there's a lot of evidence that plain packaging will decrease smoking experimentation (and subsequent addiction) among young people. The Australian government's Dept of Health and Aging website contains the studies they undertook and anyone who can use Google Scholar could easily find a raft of other studies. The evidence is there, for those who wish to see it.


As you say, but then ignore, there is no evidence that it works - only suggestions why it might work. Government interventions are famous for their unintended consequences. Rodney has pointed out some of those possibilities.


As I noted, there is evidence plain packaging will work - experimental studies and naturalistic studies consistently show plain packaging will deter youth smoking and stimulate cessation. The strongest effects will be on deterring initiation. Rodney has pointed out possibilities that have no evidence at all; in fact, the only 'evidence' produced by the tobacco industry hasn't survived any decent peer review. Afraid you're making the same mistake as Rodney, Alan: requiring evidence of one side, but relying on fictitious scaremongering from the other, doesn't constitute logic and is hardly a basis for delaying a proportionate (and evidence-based) policy.


Show me where I required evidence. I didn't, I merely pointed out you ignored your own observation that there is no current evidence, merely predictions. No doubt you also believe climate models.

There is, however, ample evidence of unintended consequences of Government interventions. For just two extremely costly examples see the war on drugs and welfare dependency.


Sorry, I'd assumed that, if you rejected evidence plain packaging will work you'd have some evidence it didn't. I keep forgetting the tobacco industry doesn't present evidence, just illogical rhetoric.

Since we're looking at past interventions, let's think about graphic health warnings. The tobacco industry claimed these wouldn't work either, but calls to the Quitline increased greatly and tracking studies show GHWs deterred smoking initiation and promoted cessation. We didn't have evaluations prior to introducing GHWs, just as we don't have evaluations of plain packaging. Instead, we have robust experimental (and other) evidence, just as we did for GHWs.

Unsupported claims of unintended consequences in other areas don't mean plain packaging won't work (argument by analogy is delightful, but fundamentally illogical).

As I wrote initially, the evidence is there, for those who wish to see it.


If there is no evidence that plain packaging doesnt work, it is because plain packaging has not been done before.


Wasn't it Rodney that exposed all the rorts in public spending to anti-tobacco groups a few years ago (before doing it himself)? What's wrong here is that the Maori Party is leading the Nats merrily down the garden parth to a lawsuit by big tobacco. But what the hell, to the Maori Party that's the price the Nats have to pay to save the whanau.

Plain packaging of tobacco products is expropriation of a companies intellectual property by the state and regardless of whether Turia likes it or not, the Government shouldn't be allowed to take away a company's right to use its trademarks/IP without fair compensation.

But sadly Turia doesn't appear to care about this and good on Rodney for raising an issue that is sure to become bigger then ben hur when it comes to picking a fight with an opponent that has very very deep pockets.


Trademarks don't guarantee rights to use a mark, they allow owners to prevent others from using the same mark. The government doesn't want to use tobacco trademarks and it isn't preventing tobacco companies from using these; it's simply defining how they might use them. Given tobacco kills 5000 NZers each year (that's around 20 times the road toll), it's about time the government stood up to tobacco companies.


There is ample evidence that prohibition leads to black markets. But more importantly, what is trying to be achieved here? The State trying to protect people from their choices.

That is the first step down a long path that ends in actions like genocide. if the government can protect us from our "poor" health choices then it can protect us from our "poor" religious and philosophical choices. In fact, there is a good argument, just in this column, that people who advocate choice should be silenced. Because, after all, it is the choice argument that is getting in the way of the plain pack ciggies argument. Therefore, we ban, na let's incacerate, the free choice advocates and the problem is solved. In fact all our political problems are solved.

Persuasion is always the more moral option. Unfortunately it takes effort. Forcing something on people isveasier and more effortless.


Plain packaging is not prohibition and equating the two is, at best, disingenous. There's ample evidence that claims plain packaging will lead to a black market are poorly founded (see: http://www.ash.org.nz/site_resources/library/Research_commisoned_by_ASH/...).

If people made 'informed choices' about smoking, I'd agree there would be no need for state intervention. But, they don't. Very few smokers can name the health risks of smoking (beyond lung cancer or cancer generally), even fewer know the likely prognosis of lung cancer (very poor), and almost none show any personal acceptance of those risks. In other words, they don't make informed choices. Instead, they believe they will quit when they choose, think cancer is somehow not 'in their genes', and believe they fall below some imaginary harm threshold (don't smoke enough to harm themselves). The tobacco industry has created uncertainty about scientific evidence (look up industry documents and see "doubt is our friend"), and sought to reassure smokers on false grounds.

If there's any genocide occurrding, it's the tobacco industry's killing of smokers - the WHO estimates one billion people will die of smoking in the 21st century.

Plain packaging doesn't remove smokers' choice; it stops the tobacco companies from luring more young smokers and it shows smoking for what it is.

John B's argument, such as it is, is nothing more that slippery slope scaremongering with no regard to evidence, logic or reason. Sounds just like a tobacco company, in fact.


Surely attention should be on the countries most harmful drug which is alcohol .
Why is this not happening,?.....simple,alcohol causes crime,..and crime creates revenue and control,
Hench private prisons.


For the former leader of a party that prided itself on reforming zeal, Rodney shows himself to be astonishingly faint-of-heart on this topic. Perhaps he has learnt caution from the many failures of ACT's / Roger Douglas's social experiments on the people of New Zealand.


If the problem with smoking is that it is addictive, then surely a plain pack cigarette is as desirable as a branded one for someone desperate for a 'fix'? As advertising relies upon the ability to exercise discretion (in the sense of distinguishing one brand from another), then it assumes that an individual will (up to a point) refrain from buying another brand if the preferred one is not available. That doesn't sound like the psyche of an addict desperate for a puff!

Given the only legal advertising now left is the pack, then all the advertising is doing is divvying up the market amongst the various providers - in a market where all brands are freely available. Plain packs will simply mean that there is no benefit from advertising, so there will be no money wasted using advertising to get market share. Instead, there will be a price war amongst providers in order to get market share. The price of cigarettes (net of tax) will fall. So the tax will have to go up by even more than if plain packs are not mandated in order to ensure the same number of cigarettes (and not more) are smoked. Sounds like a plan!

As for the 'first cigarette' - if the first one is a plain pack one, it is just as likely to beget an addiction as a branded one. Ergo, packaging is irrelevant to the addiction problem. As it has been for the years since mainstream advertising has been banned, the big 'thrill' of the first cigarette for a young person is not to emulate the Marlboro man, but to either exhibit rebellion against convention/authority or satisfy curiosity. Again packaging is irrelevant.


We need to think about two quite different behaviours: smoking initiation and smoking cessation. For young people experimenting with smoking, the packaging is important because it encapsulates the emotional attributes with which they identify. The evidence for this is very clear from tobacco industry documents, which show the meticulous research the industry undertook to target particular demographics (including the young people in whom they claim to have no interest). We have strong evidence that plain packaging will deter smjoking experimentation because young people don't want to identify with packs that are unattractive and evoke only death and disease. If packaging doesn't matter to young people, marketers (including tobacco companies) wouldn't spend millions developing packaging and brand names, and young people wouldn't want to wear desired brand names, because these wouldn't mean anything to them.

Smoking cessation is more difficult because, as you note, nicotine is so addictive. Most smokers (more than 80%) regret their addiction, wish they were smokefree, and wouldn't smoke, if they could live their lives again. Plain packaging will be the tipping point for some smokers, just as price increases will be for others, and increased community quit support will be for others. Smokers make, on average, 14 quit attempts before they become smokefree - this means they need different stimuli that prompt them to make quit attempts, as well as support so they achieve the goal so many want - becoming smokefree.

Arguing plain packaging will lead to price discounting is illogical as there's no evidence at all this will happen (aside from industry scaremongering). In fact, governments can legislate overnight to raise the price of tobacco, and have done so recently in NZ. There's every reason to expect the government to respond in this way if the industry attempted to price discount.


Rodney, do you not watch 'The Gruen Transfer'? On several occassions they have discussed tobacco marketing, and the role of colour & images in stimulating demand. If plain packaging addresses these factors as a way of reducing smoking uptake, so be it. Me thinks you're just scaremongering.


What's quite obvious here is the obvious drivel coming from those groups who are hell bent on telling New Zealanders what they should and should not be doing. Once they're finished with tobacco they will surely be onto addressing the obesity issue and saving us from enjoying a pie or moro.

As I sit on the balcony overlooking the city, smoking my Cuban cigar and enjoying every puff, I do wonder why New Zealanders can't make up their own minds or make their own decisions without being told what to do all the time by so-called health groups.


Well, you puff away then, if the packaging makes no difference to you. As you do, you might ponder on the relationship between addiction and dictatorship. It's the content that matters, right? Plain packaging will not render smoking illegal. And if 'it will make no difference' as opponents to it mention, what's the big deal? It's not 'drivel' to state this move will prevent uptake. It's evidence-based.


Ahh some dialogue with a health groupie that believes that this is "evidence based". Pardon me, but I thought that no country has actually implemented a plain packaging regime, hence arguing that plain packaging will actually result in reduced smoking numbers is a bit of a moot point.

To argue that "research" conducted on a handful of people by committed anti-tobacco academics, in receipt of significant public health funding, again reeks of seeking a predetermined outcome. But then again that is what you obviously would like.

However, pontificating about the relationship between a dictatorship and addiction is irrelevant. But you do raise an interesting conundrum in that after enjoying my cuban cigar - (of course its not in a common box old boy, but a fine leather cigar tube from London), I do believe that people actually want to see what they are buying and actually make a personal decision about which brand they would like to have.

While you may say that "it will make no difference" and "what's the big deal" the point of the matter is that adults, (considering you have to be over 18 years to purchase tobacco products in the first place), should be treated as adults and not wrapped in tissue paper because green voting health pandering lobbyists have told them they can't have a box of branded cigarettes in front of them.

Lastly, it is indeed completely inappropriate for so-called health groups to completely mislead the politicians and push for plain packaging saying it won't impact other product categories when we already see moves to introduce plain packaging for alcohol and food products that supposedly leads to obesity.

Where's my matches...


When your time comes, it seems you probably won't be lying down in any 'common old box' either. As said, you can puff away if you want. May you always have the freedom you truly desire.

There is evidence that this is a worthy move to reduce smoking uptake, and it is displayed in the opposition to it. To argue there is no evidence because no country has implemented it yet (or that it might increase demand, as Rodney has done), is no reason to preserve the current status. And if there's 'no evidence' it will work, that also means it is worth implementing to evaluate the potential benefits, because there's no evidence it won't.

If someone makes the decision to smoke (as an adult), this is premised on their acceptance that smoking kills. Why then is there opposition to measures that account for influences contributing to that decision and that seek to prevent these from occurring? After all, if people have made a 'personal decision' about the brand they want to smoke (as you say), the external packaging should make no difference.

The relationship 'between dictatorship' and addiction' is irrelevant?
Is it adult thinking not to see it? We agree on the point that people actually want to see what they are buying, but for different reasons.
The existing packaging therefore prevents youth from seeing this reality, but their later experience will inform them. Lingering cough yet?

Of course all the legitimate businesses only advertise to encourage brand switching in their respective industries. They're not seeking new customers, are they?


My letter to Philip Morris:

Dear Philip Morris,

I'm not a smoker.

What you are doing trying to convince people to continue smoking, should be illegal and considered a crime. (It will be one day)

You know you are killing people, but you are also making money. So what's the best thing to do in your opinion? Make money of course! Lives doesn't matter. If a father dies of a smoking disese? That's fine, there is the mother. For you it doesn't matter anything. Neither the family, nor the health.

All you want is money.

My dad smoked his whole life. Today he was diagnosed with lung emphysema and doctor said to him to quit smoking now or die soon. He quit.

It's a shame you don't think in that way. You see, your product is killing people, is making our lives worst, is putting our children health in danger, but all you want is what?? Make more people addicted to your poison, and make money at the end.

Why don't you invest your money in something benefitial to the humanity? Open a new business which doesn't harm people's health. Make money in that way. It's fine to make money, but don't kill our families.

You see, I know your opinion, you will say that people have the right to choose if they want to smoke or not. Of course. People have the choice, but they don't know what a bad choice they are making because they see their parents and friends smoking, and find "cool" to start smoking as well. Young people who are still developing their bodies, their immune system, are smoking. And that is a big problem for them in the future, but they just don't understand.

But think this way, if there was a guy handing a free poison on the streets, which would slowly kill you, would you let your children take the poison? Of course not. Ok, so there's a guy handing free cigarettes, would you let your children take it? Again, you wouldn't.

See, you know cigarette is bad and you don't care.

I know you won't publish this in any way, but someone is reading. Tell your boss that there's a huge group against smoking and we are acting fast to stop this disease which is making so many victims.

Your efforts in making people smoke more are doing no good to our society, and one day you will have no choice but quit too.

Hope this day is near.

Junior Baynes


The youth seldom if ever buy a pack when they want to try their first cigarette nor the subsequent ones. They usually get them or buy them from their peers piece meal and by the time they are up to the point of wanting to buy their own pack, they're already steady smokers. So unless you plaster the cigarette itself with all kinds of gory images and warnings, plain packaging will not do a thing to stop some children from experimenting with tobacco. Pretending that it's worth trying at the risk of opening the door wide for government to misappropriate the intellectual property of legal private companies, is an irresponsible stance to take on matters that can set very dangerous precedents in our everyday lives and civil liberties.


TRIPS Basic Principles, Article 8:

"Members may, in formulating and amending their laws and regulations adopt measures necessary to protect public health"

This is not misappropriation, nor is it pretence. The decision to smoke (especially when young) sets very dangerous precedents in our everyday lives & civil liberties. These are your words applied to tobacco. What you mean by 'steady smokers' is addiction. Your choice of terms indicates you don't care if youth start smoking. If the current regime is a factor in starting, then plain packaging will be an effective tool for prevention.

You're assuming manufacturers have a greater case than the Australian (& NZ) governments. They don't. Just interpretation of existing trade clauses, instead of slanting it away from Art. 8 is what is called for. You say 'some' children - this means the rest will benefit.


An attack on freedom of expression, one of the foundations of a free society.


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