11 Nov 2016

Are tobacco companies 'gaming the system'?

From Nine To Noon, 9:30 am on 11 November 2016
Associate Health Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga with an example of the plain packaging.

An example of the plain packaging. Photo: RNZ / Mei Heron

By 2018, cigarettes will be sold with plain packaging in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Health Ministry is proposing even stricter measures than the tough anti-smoking regulations Australia introduced four years ago – which included plain packaging and tax excise hikes.

Melbourne academic Steve Greenland recommends the New Zealand government take measures above and beyond plain packaging as in Australia the big tobacco companies have developed sophisticated responses to the regulations.

They are ‘gaming the system’ by discounting and promoting the false idea of 'healthier' cigarettes, he says.

Historically, cigarette marketers have used colours on the packets themselves to denote ‘lightness’ – lower-tar content – which is perceived as less harmful.

Paler colours – such as white and silver – are associated with cigarettes that used to be called ‘light’ or ‘mild’, 'ultra-light' or 'ultra-mild'.

The regulation packaging of cigarettes in Australia is now a dull brown so the only way tobacco companies can denote ‘lightness’ is by adding a colour to the brand name – e.g. making Dunhill Infinite into Dunhill Infinite White.

Greenland says before the introduction of plain packaging, less than half of cigarette brands had a colour as part of their name – now it’s about 80%.

Smoking rates have gone down by 1 or 2 percent in Australia since cigarettes have been plain-packaged and studies show the appeal of cigarettes has declined, but Greenland says it’s difficult to isolate that regulation’s individual impact.