Monday 7 September 2009

The plain packaging ruse

Every day, millions of tiny miracles happen in shops throughout Britain. Customers walk in and ask for products that do not exist and have not existed for years. The shopkeeper hands over these products, the customer hands over their money, and that is that. These non-existent products include such items as Marlboro Lights, Camel Lights and Silk Cut Ultra.

Since 2002, the EU has banned words like 'light' and 'low tar' from appearing on cigarette packs. And yet low tar cigarettes do exist. The shopkeeper knows it. The customer knows it. The side of the pack explicitly shows how much tar and nicotine are contained within. For the sake of propriety, however, we must all pretend that this is not so.

Everyone knows, for example, that Marlboros in a gold pack are really Marlboro Lights, and everyone knows that Marlboro Lights have less tar in them than Marlboro Reds. But this cannot be openly admitted and the BBC goes along with the game:

Marlboro packs with a gold label were rated as having a lower health risk by 53% of adults and easier to quit by 31%, when compared with the Marlboro packs with a red logo.

The BBC are reporting here yet more unpublished 'new research'. This time the research suggests that some customers believe Marlboro Lights 'Marlboro packs with a gold label' are less harmful to health than Marlboros with a higher tar content. Professor David Hammond, from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, says that this is a fallacy:

"The truth is that all cigarettes are equally hazardous, regardless of what colour the pack is or what words appear on it."

Well perhaps. Or perhaps not. The truth is that people have not been smoking ultra-low tar cigarettes for long enough for us to see if there is any reduction in risk. And by the standards of previous decades, all cigarettes currently on sale in the EU are ultra-low tar.

But there is some evidence that lowering tar yields has reduced risk in the past, such as in this study:

The tendency for the risk of lung cancer to increase with increasing tar content was consistent among men and women.

The results provide further support for the hypothesis that the tar content of cigarettes is directly related to lung cancer risk.

And even ASH have not always been fundamentalist in their opposition to lower yields. Here is Karen Williams, ASH's former campaign director, talking in 1995:

"There are no safe tar levels in cigarettes but basically the higher the tar the greater danger to health. It is nicotine which is addictive and the more nicotine there is in a cigarette the greater the chance there is of reinforcing the habit and making it harder to stop."

The EU appears to agree with this. After all, if they believe that all cigarettes are equally harmful, why did they set a maximum tar level of 15mg in 1992? As Man Widdecombe has pointed out:

Hold on a second, didn't the EU regulate the amount of tar and nicotine in cigarettes because of health reasons?

Directive 90/239/EEC established maximum limits for the tar yield of cigarettes marketed in the Member States with effect from 31 December 1992. The carcinogenic nature of tar makes it necessary to reduce further the levels of tar in cigarettes.

If high tar cigarettes are not more hazardous than low tar cigarettes, why would the EU bother to bring in this ban? Why, indeed, would they go on to lower the legal limit to 12mg (in 1998) and then to 10mg (in 2004)? Presumably because 12mg tar is better than 15mg, and 10mg is better still.

So by what magical process does reducing tar yields from 12mg to 10mg reduce risk when, as we are now being told, switching from a 10mg tar cigarette to a 1mg cigarette makes no difference? Either low tar cigarettes are less hazardous (in which case the government should not be pretending otherwise) or all cigarettes are equally harmful (in which case the EU ban is pointless and they should allow high tar cigarettes back on the market).

Like most 'new research' in the field of tobacco, this study has a political objective. In this instance, it is to persuade the government to force the tobacco industry to wrap their cigarettes in plain packaging with no logo, words or colours.

Subtle branding on cigarette packets is misleading smokers into believing some products are less harmful than others, research suggests.

Products branded "smooth", "silver" or "gold" are generally believed to be healthier and easier to give up, a survey of 1,300 people found.

But when shown plain packs the false beliefs disappeared, University of Nottingham researchers discovered.

How this plain packaging ruse will work in practice remains a mystery. The anti-smoking lobby are not calling for all cigarettes to have the same tar and nicotine yields, so 'light' cigarettes will still exist, even if they cannot be called that. And if they exist, they must surely still be identifiable as different products in some way, even if they have to be called something like Marlboro A and Marlboro B. And if they are identifiable, consumers and shopkeepers will still know that Marlboro B are really Marlboro Lights.

Perhaps, in the future, this information will be passed on from father to son and from mother to daughter. Perhaps the very existence of low tar cigarettes will only be confirmed by whispered conversations on street corners. How ever it is passed on, that knowledge will survive. Short of erasing the collective memory of the nation, it is difficult to see how this latest phase in smoking's denormalisation will achieve what it sets out to do.


manwiddicombe said...

Thank you for more eloquently voicing my anger at the ridiculous change of attitudes towards tar content.

I think that lumping "healthier and easier to give up" together in the survey has produced the result that the researchers wanted to acheive. (With no facts at my disposal) I assume that a nicotine addict can't differentiate between dose strength if they are trying to quit smoking; it's equally hard if you smoke reds or lights.

*Sparks up a Lucky*

jredheadgirl said...

Thanks for this brilliant article Chris! Smokers have a right to know what they are buying. Just because one product may not help to to quit, does not mean that that same product cannot also be less hazardous. Many of us do not WANT to quit, but we DO want a reduced risk product; thus, we have a right to know what we are consuming. It is a human right. No one has the right to deny us this knowledge, and no one has a right to deny us access to the very best (and cutting edge) science that could potentially eradicate many of the health issues associated with smoking. We also have a right to continue to smoke, no matter what the outcome.

Thanks for fighting for us. Oh, and your book is incredible. I'm going to keep it next to me for reference when trying to converse (ok, that's impossible...almost) with the antis out there in the cyber world.


Juliette, aka jred

timbone said...

In the 1970s, there was a slip inside a cigarette packet with advice from HM Government Health Dept. One of these was to try and change to a brand with a lower tar yield. I wonder what research took place so that eventually, last year, there were television ads telling us that the tar yield made no difference, in fact, lower tar could be more dangerous!

I was shocked when I read in your excellent book that the average tar yield in cigarettes in the 1930's was 43mg (nicotine 3.5mg). The 'evil' cigarete manufaturers have lowered this over the years so that now the average is 10mg tar and 0.9mg nicotine. One of the Silk Cut variety has reduced the tar to 1% I believe.

In my first paragraph, I asked what research has changed lower tar/safer cigarette to all cigarettes are the same. Again, reading between the lines, you give the answer. If smokers/potential smokers know that less tar means less harm it will slow down the ruthless anti smoking machine.

Anonymous said...

Would it I wonder be o,k for the cigarette packet to have something like 'Marlboro cigarettes with a lower amount of tar in them. This may or may not be less dangerous, but depends on who you believe'
Quite a lot of words to have to print, but at least no pretending !!