Global Glance: August 22, 2016
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Smoking in France and the Global Legislative Trend of De-Branding Cigarette Packs
After spending three weeks in an exchange program last winter, my (American) daughter reports that Parisian teens still smoke like it’s the carefree fifties, when there was little scientific evidence linking cancer and cigarettes. My daughter’s take may have been influenced by preconceived notions of what it means to be French, including having natural passions for drinking wine, sitting in cafes, and, yes, smoking cigarettes. But her observation is supported by statistics. An article last week on NPR’s website indicates that roughly 40 percent of French 17-year-olds smoke, compared with about 10 percent of US teens. The article adds that cigarettes are particularly popular with French girls, quoting one as saying that smoking is “a rite of passage and a part of French culture.”
In an effort to end this tradition, NPR explains, “France has just introduced some of the world's toughest anti-tobacco measures, including plain cigarette packs and a ban on menthol cigarettes.” The article quotes French Health Minister Marisol Touraine as saying, “We know that more and more of our young people are smoking. … And they're particularly susceptible to marketing, which is inherent in the colors and shapes of these cigarette packs. … This law will break that advertising and branding.” A French tobacco-industry representative counters that the new laws will primarily hurt mom and pop tobacconists and “just push people to buy cigarettes on the internet, abroad or on the black market.”
The law on packaging is particularly intriguing, because the cigarette industry has for so many decades effectively associated its products with sophistication, elegance and visual appeal. Soon, NPR explains, smokers in France will no longer be able to buy an attractive, uniquely branded pack of, say, Gitanes, with its iconic silhouette of a wasp-wasted woman on a blue, smokey background. In about six months, all cigarette packs sold in France will look alike, “with just the brand name in small letters next to large health warnings and pictures of diseased human organs.”
France is not alone in adopting severe cigarette-packaging legislation. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control — a tobacco control treaty — recommends plain or standardized packaging. Numerous countries including the UK and Ireland have either adopted the recommendation or have taken steps in that direction. The Framework Convention Alliance’s website explains that Australia adopted plain-packaging legislation in 2012. Philip Morris took the Australian government to court over the issue but lost all related lawsuits.
An article last month in The New York Times titled “Ugly Is the New Look for Cigarette Packs” explores this global legislative trend. It explains that in the cigarette industry, brand imagery and advertising are “practically all that matters.” It adds that the “vast majority of smokers start when they are young,” not because they like the taste of smoke (let alone the taste of a particular cigarette's smoke), but because of a desire to “create a self-image with their cigarette brand.”
In Australia, all cigarette branding has vanished, and packs “are covered with garish photos of smoking-related illnesses — blobs of tumor, diseased heart muscle and rotted toes, along with haunting pictures of young cancer patients on their deathbeds.” A particular pack’s brand name is indicated only by “small letters in a standard font on the pack front.”
While the long-term effects of plain packaging in Australia can’t be measured yet, the Times notes that the legislation, combined with tax hikes on cigarettes and other measures, have already shown signs of effectiveness. Adolescent smoking in Australia, for example, “has hit a record low.”
There are good reasons for legislators in all countries to combat tobacco use. The WHO website reports that tobacco kills nearly 6 million people every year, with over half a million of those dying from second-hand-smoke exposure. As for economic effects, the WHO notes that tobacco’s costs “are measured in its enormous toll of disease, suffering and family distress” as well as “increased health-care costs and decreased productivity.”
The cigarette-packaging legislation in Australia, France and elsewhere — along with accompanying legal fights from industry giants — are reminders of the power of branding and how essential it is to effectively selling products anywhere in the world. US tobacco companies, the Times explains, have so far prevailed in legal fights over the use of graphic warning labels in the US by effectively arguing “that the labels went beyond factual information into antismoking advocacy, and that violated their First Amendment rights.”
That argument can’t of course be made in another jurisdiction such as Australia, where, as a 2015 Guardian article explains, Philip Morris unsuccessfully argued “that the ban on trademarks breached foreign investment provisions of Australia’s 1993 Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement with Hong Kong.” A representative for Philip Morris is quoted in the article as saying, “It is regrettable that the [case’s] outcome hinged entirely on a procedural issue that Australia chose to advocate instead of confronting head on the merits of whether plain packaging is legal or even works.” To which someone might respond: “If you don’t think plain packaging ‘works,’ then why are you spending so much time and money trying to overturn the law?”
There's no doubt plain packaging will have an effect on cigarette sales. The only serious question is: Will the laws have a catastrophic effect on cigarette sales in markets where they’re implemented? Or, as the Times article asks, “How many teens would start to smoke if sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette?” My guess is, not many.
While I’m no tobacco-industry apologist, we should all ask why the governments of Australia, France, etc., don’t simply ban tobacco altogether, rather than implement laws that strip the industry of its branding privileges while forcing it to place repellent images on its packaging. No doubt the answer lies in tobacco’s enduring popularity, particularly among men, and the fact that banning the substance outright would eliminate a critical source of tax revenue and in some countries could hypothetically lead to political instability. Imagine what would happen to a politician who banned smoking in, for example, Indonesia, where over 75 percent of males aged 15 and older are smokers.
Whatever the reasons may be for most countries not banning smoking, I can think of no analogue in the global economy to legally forcing an entire industry to place bold, repulsive images on its products. The evolution of these remarkable regulations could prove to be fodder for business school professors, economists, social scientists, psychologists and even philosophers for decades to come.