Can cigarette packaging alone affect whether or not a person will smoke?

Tobacco companies got a little upset earlier this week when the UK’s Department of Health announced a plan to reduce smoking rates 50 percent by 2020 by stopping the sale of cigarettes in vending machines, promoting a smoke free environment, making help more available to potential quitters and cracking down on cheap, illicit cigarettes. But the kicker is that the UK is considering instituting a plan requiring plain, or generic, cigarette packaging. That means no color, no logo, no graphics; nothing but the brand name against a neutral background, according to a websitePhilip Morris International developed to fight the plan. Oh, and a large health warning, of course.

The goal of enforcing plain cigarette packaging is to make all packs look unappealing and better highlight the health warnings. But is it really the packaging that’s making cigarettes so appealing to consumers?

I agree that certain design elements like color and wording might lead consumers to believe one product may be less harmful than another. But I think there’s much more to a cigarette’s appeal. TV advertising is one key player, but I’m thinking of another form of advertising that might be harder to get rid of… Hollywood. Back in the day, it was the glamour and status of smokers in the movies that originally got people interested, wasn’t it? And, today, actors are still smoking on screen – and making it look good.

A scene from the first episode ofThe OCpops into my head. I know… it’sThe OC, but bear with me. When Ryan Atwood, a troubled teenager fighting a grand theft auto charge, meets his young, rich neighbor, Marissa Cooper, he lights her cigarette with his own, in a sexy scene that sets the tone for the rest of the show. Ifthisisn’t cigarette advertising, I don’t know what is. But you’ll notice it doesn’t point out a specific brand. That’s where package design comes in. Once someone’s curious enough to try smoking, it’s time to hit the shelves and take their pick. And if there’s no TV advertising or store displays to help guide them (the UK has already banned advertising and plans to eliminate store displays), packaging is the only advertising tool left.

I think it’s important to make sure all consumers know that a cigarette is a cigarette; whether it says “light” or “low tar,” it’s bad for you. Maybe it’s a last resort to revert to generic packaging to stop people from smoking. Regardless, tobacco companies will be fighting this plan tooth and nail, on the grounds that it  violates intellectual property rights, international trade and European law.

Overall, I think we can assume that everyone knows the risks of smoking. But if smoking is made to appear inconvenient and “uncool,” a lot of people might have more of a reason to quit. Whether or not that’s through package design, only time will tell.