Analyzing Australia's cigarette packaging regulations

It's an internationally reported story, but what might it portend?

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
The headlines are as recent as a puffed smoke-ring, wafting intact: Australia proposes regulations mandating plain packaging. Plain, in this instance, bears no relation to the "less is more" school of thought subscribed to by many designers; rather, it means sans logo, branding images, and color. Furthermore, promotional copy will be limited to brand name and product designation, and even then of a standard font, size, position, and color. In dwarfing contrast to that austerity, will be graphic, color photos of cancer, augmenting prominently-placed warnings. The intended end-result is packaging that, at a distance (for example, a sales counter), is indistinguishable across brands. As such, a more apt description might be generic packaging.

Enactment is slated for July 1, 2012. In the interim, the principals (government and tobacco) will spar fiercely; however, punches and counterpunches began flying years ago, when rumors of the regulations first floated. At this juncture, the fight plans of each corner seem clear, in terms of their fundamental arguments. Given that the regulations are a world-first and might serve as the template for other governments invites analysis of those arguments, but not just from the perspective of a single industry.
Government: Plain packaging would reduce smoking

A major aspect of the argument is that packaging makes cigarettes appealing, in particular to youth. There is some empirical muscle to the allegation. Young people, indeed, are impressionable, as a consequence of that stage in life; nonetheless, it doesn't automatically follow that the decision to smoke and the decision to smoke a particular brand are influenced equally by packaging. The former can be influenced by many social and lifestyle factors, and packaging doesn't have to be one of them. As for the latter, a plausible contention is that packaging is trade-dress, distinguishing among choices, after the decision to buy cigarettes already has been made.

Another aspect of the argument is that packaging imparts an aura that reduces the effectiveness of the warnings and that plain packaging would not convey the false perception that some cigarettes are safer than others. Surely, the vast majority throughout modern societies accept science's claim that smoking can cause cancer and other serious ailments; yet, people continue to light up, some from addiction, but what about the newcomers?  The answer can't be assignable all to packaging, not when, for years, packs have carried explicit, conspicuously-placed warnings. Is it now reasonable to postulate that the effectiveness of a warning is a function of its size, in justifying devoting a large portion of the front panel and the entire back panel to it? Moreover, promotional qualifiers such as low-tar, mild, light, etc., can be proscribed by regulation and have been in various countries.
But no matter how an analysis is finessed, packaging can't be dismissed as a potential influence in smoking. That's because for decades, promoters of packaging have hailed the discipline's effectiveness, relative to impulse buying and brand building. It's almost redundant to say that packaging plays a role in consumer packaged goods. The issue, in the case of cigarettes, is whether the role is the one alleged.

Tobacco: No proof plain packaging would reduce smoking, and mandating it constitutes theft of intellectual property

The logic in the no-proof part of the argument is implied by the proposed regulations' being the first of their kind. In compensation, the government cites a combination of approvals, recommendations, and studies from a variety of sources, including The World Health Organization (an agency of the United Nations). Even so, the prestige of a source does not exempt it from the evaluation of the methodologies and assumptions underlying the inputs from that source. Packaging is a multifaceted discipline, and any undertaking that does not adequately reflect that fact is likely to produce findings that are simplistic at best and misdirected at worse. It's a truth that's applicable even to cigarettes, a product that is unquestionably deadly; for, the objective should be the implementation of measures that achieve what they propose to achieve. It's not a support of smoking to say that the government should go beyond citation to disclosure, so that analysis can be made—yes, by tobacco—but, more importantly, by disinterested parties.

Any allegation that packaging induces product usage simultaneously concedes that packaging is a valuable corporate asset. It can't be otherwise, when packaging is the medium that conveys logo, brand, product description, and promotional copy through structure and graphics. Packaging is the embodiment of all the time, money, and resources invested in building a consumer packaged good. It's an incontestable argument, then, that packaging is intellectual property; the contest is over the degree of control and restriction that a government should exercise over it.

One might ask, on what basis is it that packaging, as intellectual property, should be sacrosanct, when practically every other aspect of the tobacco industry is regulated, in accordance to the government's stances. Even if the proposed regulations are implemented unrevised, packaging will continue to exist as a promotional medium (although greatly reduced) for tobacco; however, for years, other media, particularly television, have been banned. The tobacco industry should steer clear of complaining of being singled out, which, in large measure, stems from its products' being like no other consumer packaged good. The prospects for sympathy are slim. Instead, the industry would seem better served by pinning its defense on the protection that it believes it's entitled to under international trade treaties and the like.

Beyond Australia, beyond tobacco

Now that Australia has taken cigarette packaging regulations to new heights (or lows, from tobacco's view), some governments will not wait the time required to determine the success of those measures before following suit. Over the years, the tobacco industry has been able to thwart proposals for plain packaging of cigarettes in the U.S. What Australia has done might give impetus to renewed efforts, especially in light of next month's expansion of the Federal Food & Drug Administration's governance of tobacco. Plus, the FDA will be just one of several agencies governing tobacco; therefore, packaging regulations can take a variety of paths.

But few things damage the credibility of an analysis more than an unwarranted slippery slope argument, which would be the case to assert that the Australian regulations diminish packaging, in general. That said, consumer packaged goods companies, in general, should recognize the need for reflection.
The government in the Land Down Under sees packaging regulations as a means to reduce the number one preventable cause of death—smoking. But the list is longer, there and around the world, including drunken driving, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. What they have in common is a link (of varying directness) to what people consume. How might packaging regulations address those linkages? How wide-ranging can the call for plain (or at least, pared down) packaging stretch?

What if regulations restricted the alcohol industry from using packaging designed to increase sales and consumption? There go beer labels that change color to indicate coldness, beer bottles with spiral necks for faster dispensing, and liquor closures that double as shot glasses. Why not protect children from the influence of sugary cereals that are marketed in cartons unquestionably designed to appeal to them? And isn't society better off without the salt content for which many prepared foods (i.e. packaged foods) are known?
It deserves repeating that tobacco is a deadly product, unlike any other marketed, so, this is not an attempt to equate it with the aforementioned. That notwithstanding, it is a reality that the redeeming qualities of a host of CPG's are debatable. Just as much of a reality, however, is that until a product is banned Prohibition-fashion, the company has a duty to seek adequate financial returns for its shareholders. A large part of that duty is monitoring the packaging regulations horizon for the broadest implications and to do ones best to comply with the present and to plan for the foreseeable.
For related reading, see the 4/26/10 Packaging Insights article; Is a tobacco company using packaging to target children?

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax;
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