Plain packaging a win for young women

Dr Emilee Gilbert, School of Social Sciences and Psychology, University of Western Sydney

On August 15 2012, the High Court of Australia passed the world’s first Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 (Cth) mandating that from December 1 2012, all tobacco products are to be sold in plain packaging.

This decision aligns with the Australian Government’s national strategy for preventative health and the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – it also puts Australia in the enviable position of having the world’s toughest anti-smoking regime.

It is no wonder the tobacco industry is so strongly opposed to the plain packaging legislation, because they are aware of how influential product packaging is as an advertising tool.

With the removal of branded packages from cigarettes, the tobacco industry will lose an important form of advertising. Branded packets were one of the only remaining marketing strategies available in Australia – without them the tobacco industry will experience a serious blow to their youth marketing campaigns.

The Tobacco Plain Packaging Act is a win for all Australians – in particular, it is a win for young women.

The visual presentation of brand names, colour schemes, and logos communicate information about the attractiveness of a brand, and, by extension, information about the identity of a smoker. The brands on tobacco packs and cigarettes have become ‘badge products’ or ‘accessories’ that serve as socially visible cues about a person’s style, status, and personality.

Over the past 11 years, I have conducted qualitative studies of young women's perceptions and attitudes toward smoking. The findings clearly indicate that the visual appearance and brands of cigarette packets have a strong influence on young women’s decisions to take up and continue smoking.

From the series of interview studies I have conducted with young Australian women smokers there is no question that tobacco brand choice is strongly influenced by the colour of the tobacco pack. Young women in my studies have reported that cigarettes packaged in gold, white, or a combination of the two, are more appealing because of the ‘feminine type packaging’, with the impact of such packaging being powerful enough to provoke brand switching.

Young women also reported that during young adulthood, achieving a desirable image is one of the most important reasons they took up smoking, with cigarettes seen as a glamorous fashion accessory, a fashionable expression of individuality, and a way to gain status and peer group approval.The packaging of ‘feminine’ and ‘fashionable’ cigarettes in slim, long packs, with light colours has been instrumental in glamorising women’s smoking and recruiting these young women into the habit.

The results of my studies also show that the ‘whiteness’ of tobacco packaging is often associated with cleanliness, with the cigarettes contained within seen as less ‘dirty’ and ‘safer’ than those packaged in ‘traditional’ colours. Other research has yielded similar results, showing that cigarette packets with a branded white appearance are seen by young women as ‘clean,’ with the cigarettes referred to as ‘sterile sticks’.

Thus, the use of light colouring misleads young women into believing that they are smoking a safer product that is more palatable, less strong, and smoother tasting than other cigarettes. This is of significant concern in the light of demographic smoking trends and the many health risks that are unique to women who smoke.

With current trends indicating that young women’s smoking is on the rise, the removal of product packaging is a decision that is likely to be celebrated by public health advocates who are concerned about rates of women’s smoking.

Removing the advertising impact of branded tobacco packaging, which portrays women’s smoking as fashionable, glamorous, and sophisticated, is a step in the right direction toward reducing the recruitment of new young women smokers.

Time will tell what impact, if any, the implementation of plain packaging legislation will have on young women’s smoking – however, current evidence indicates that this legislation may have a powerful impact on young women smokers, who are particularly vulnerable to tobacco product packaging.

At the moment, evidence shows that young women smokers are often less concerned than young men about the long-term effects of smoking, and are resistant to health warnings about smoking. The key, however, will be whether this legislation stops a new generation of young women from talking up the habit.

Despite the proliferation of health messages, many young women in Australia today still consider smoking as a way of looking cool, and attaining a status that is socially valued.

It is not the cigarette itself that is initially enticing; it is the image of the cigarette as the ultimate, attainable fashion accessory. If you take away the look and style of the cigarettes, you will take away the appeal for many young women.

On a positive note, what we do know is that when branding and brand-associated elements are removed from tobacco packs, the pack is viewed more negatively by young people, as are the perceived attributes of smokers.

In addition, young people’s recall of health warnings is significantly greater on plain packs compared to branded packs, and plain pack health warnings are also seen as more serious than the same warnings on branded packs.

Without this legislation, the tobacco industry could continue to use their packs to recruit young people into smoking. By taking away their branded packs, this legislation has taken away an important vehicle for establishing connections between the brand and the consumer and has effectively taken away the tobacco industry’s front line of advertising.


23 August 2012

Contact: Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer