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Plain packs may cause smoker second thoughts

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Plain cigarette packs may be encouraging smokers to think about quitting, according to the first study into the effects of Australia’s world-first plain packaging legislation.

Smokers of cigarettes from plain packages were almost twice as likely to have considered quitting their habit as those smoking branded products, research published in the BMJ  last week (can be viewed at: http://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f4665) found.

Based on interviews with 536 smokers – 72 per cent of whom were smoking plain packaged products – the study gives the first indications about the effectiveness of plain packaging as a way of encouraging people to give up the habit.

In a sign of the influence of the so-called halo effect, researchers found that those smoking from plain packages tended to find their cigarettes less satisfying than branded pack smokers, and rated quitting as a higher priority.

Health Minister Tanya Plibersek seized on the results of the study, which was commissioned by Quit Victoria, as evidence that the Government’s reform was putting people off smoking.

“The new research shows plain packaged cigarettes with larger health warnings increases smokers’ urgency to quit, and makes smoking less appealing,” Ms Plibersek said. “We’ve had feedback from smokers saying their cigarettes taste worse since the Government has required packaging to be plain.”

Under laws that came into effect last December, all tobacco products must be sold in plain packaging carrying large and graphic health warnings.

Two countries are considering introducing similar legislation, but the British Government has controversially dropped similar plans (see Claims of undue influence cloud UK backflip on plain packaging on p41), citing a lack of evidence as to the effectiveness of the measure.

But although the study, conducted last November and December as the plain packaging laws were being implemented, suggests smokers of cigarettes from plain packs are more likely to considering giving up, there is as yet no evidence that the change has led people to quit.

Nor, the authors admitted, were they able to “tease apart” whether it was the plain packaging itself, or larger health warnings, that may be influencing the perceptions of smokers.

As pointed out by the Crikey web news service last week, the study’s results also shed no light on whether plain packaging has been successful in one of its key goals, deterring children and adolescents from taking up smoking.

And, underlining the need for caution when assessing the effectiveness of plain packaging, the study found there were “no significant differences in the proportion of plain and branded pack smokers who thought frequently about the harms of smoking or thought smoking harms had been exaggerated”.

Adrian Rollins