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Can Plain Cigarette Packages Stop Smokers from Lighting Up?

Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released new graphic warning labels that will soon grace every pack of smokes sold in the United States. In recent years, gruesome photos of smoking's physical effects have commandeered significant surface area on cigarette packs around the world. The new U.S. warnings will eat up 50 percent of both the front and rear panels of each pack; in Brazil, one full panel on each pack is covered with a warning.

Over a decade ago, a Canadian report (PDF) recommended that governments claim even more real estate on cigarette packaging—by eliminating tobacco branding entirely. "Tobacco products cannot be easily differentiated based on physical differences—it's difficult for people to discriminate between brands in blind taste tests," read a joint report from the University of Toronto and the University of Illinois. But researchers found that branding went a long way in influencing teen smoking habits. Many of the 12-to-17-year-old smokers surveyed were already exhibiting brand loyalty; young Canadian smokers preferred du Maurier and Player's cigarettes, while American kids favored Marlboros and Newports. "The red package makes a statement: I am sophisticated," one student told researchers. "The plain one doesn't."

The report recommended that cigarette packages with recognizable brand images—like Camel's mascot or Marlboro's red seal—be stripped in favor of "light brown or white packages with black printing only," meaning no "colour, trademarks or unique print fonts." Students who participated in the study found that plain packaging "boring" and "uglier," and considered kids who smoked from them "wimpy," cheap, and "geeky." Smokers from regular, branded packs were deemed "fun," "popular," "cool," "with it," and "good-looking." And some of those teens, at least, think those social determinations could influence behavior: 25 percent of students said the plain packages would inspire young smokers to smoke less, and 35 percent said nonsmokers would be less likely to take up the habit.

The "with it" reference may have tipped you off to the staleness of this research; teens who participated in this study are now in their 30s. A more recent British study of adults found that the plain packaging encourages light and non-smokers to pay better attention to the warning labels. But regular smokers were immune to the tactic, and the study didn't measure the effects of that heightened awareness. Today, Canada is still considering the idea of banning branding from cigarettes. Next year, Australia will be the first country to give the initiative a whirl.

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