Bonfire of the tobacco brands

On May 20th, it became law that cigarettes and tobacco products in the UK are manufactured in identical, boring packs. Once-famous brands like Marlboro, Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges are being reduced to plain colours and simple text.

Instead of deep red, purple and gold, gleaming foil blocking and richly embossed type, every brand will be identical. All packs will be printed in the world’s official least-attractive colour (Pantone 448C) and the world’s most boring font (Helvetica).

Aside from annoying Helvetica fans (the only typeface to have an entire film made about it) this new legislation has incensed the tobacco industry. They argue that the value of their brands is being destroyed without compensation, and they’re right.

They also argue – again correctly – that eliminating brands reduces consumer choice, makes the shopkeeper’s job harder, makes piracy easier and will cause smokers to ‘downtrade’ from premium brands to cheaper, commodity brands. This is not news – AML CEO Ian Henderson outlined the case on Newsnight a while ago.

But now the UK Government has been persuaded to take action by campaigners like Cancer Research, ASH and evidence from Australia, where a reduction in smoking followed the same action three years ago; although tobacco companies say the statistics only reflect a general decline in smoking in developed countries.

Tobacco companies still make handsome profits using old-style branded packs and lavish advertising in many low-income countries across Asia and Africa. But in their traditional markets society is moving against them – even big investment firms like AXA IM are prepared to give up the profits tobacco can offer because of the ‘social cost’.

There’s no arguing against the fact that smoking is antisocial and smelly, as well as being demonstrably life-shortening. Life insurance actuaries, not known for their generosity, offer much higher annuity rates to smokers simply because statistics show they won’t live as long as non-smokers. So the fewer people smoke, the better – and that’s from an ex-smoker.

There’s one odd thing, though. Printing lurid pictures of smoking-related diseases on packs doesn’t seem to have a great deal of effect among hardened smokers. It’s more usually short-term effects such as bad breath, discoloured skin and shortness of breath that actually trigger behaviour change. A bottle of Listerine mouthwash left on my desk by a female admirer did it for me.

So here’s an idea from AML’s creative director Richard Germain; print messages on the side of the cigarettes themselves like ‘My breath stinks’, ‘I don’t understand statistics’ or ‘My sperm is damaged’. A simple idea (among an admittedly complicated set of human behaviours) that might make smoking seem a bit less cool?