When I was a boy, Marlboro Man was the essence of all that is cool. Detached, sure of himself, with eyes that betrayed just a hint of menace, this was the cowboy that every man and boy aspired to become.
Darren Winfield, the original Marlboro Man from the cigarette box and TV campaign, became a hugely valuable commercial property for the Philip Morris Company. So much so that when he retired, they spent $300 million looking for a suitable replacement.
The packaging of cigarettes has always been big business. Now, the British government wants to stuff cigarettes into plain cardboard wrappers and, in shops, hide them from public view.
Ministers have called for an end to glossy packaging on cigarette boxes and, from next year, will ask retailers to cover up displays of cigarettes to protect children.
One wonders what Mr. Winfield would make of it, sitting high atop his steed looking nonchalantly down at the world.
Many smokers already feel under siege, as they gather surreptitiously in doorways for a quick puff. But from next year, they may find themselves asking for a product that is hidden under the counter, in the way that soft porn once was (and probably still should be).
On its own, this plan probably won’t cause too many existing smokers to kick the habit, which is sad.
Smoking is responsible for 106,000 deaths in the UK every year, mainly due to cancers, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and heart disease. One in every four cancer deaths is down to smoking and the habit kills half of its long-term practitioners.
The patient.co.uk site, which offers free health information written by doctors and other health professionals, says:
‘If you are a long-term smoker, on average, your life expectancy is about 10 years less than a non-smoker. Put another way, in the UK about 8 in 10 non-smokers live past the age of 70, but only about half of long-term smokers live past 70. The younger you are when you start smoking, the more likely you are to smoke for longer and to die early from smoking.’
Some extreme libertarians or liberals may argue that death-by-smoking is a matter for individual choice. If some people want to commit what is in effect a slow form of suicide that is their right.
Of course, smoking isn’t banned, so people are still free to do so. Yet smokers’ deaths nearly always impact entire families and, while this shouldn’t be our primary reason for opposing smoking, they also bite into our national productivity.
In times of austerity, it’s worth remembering that deaths from smoking cost the nation around £13.74 billion every year – with cigarettes accounting for more than 90 percent of that. The national income from tobacco taxation is just £10 billion per year. There’s three billion pounds we could well use elsewhere.
The overall figure is made up of costs from loss in productivity due to smoking breaks; increased absenteeism; the cost of cleaning up cigarette butts; the cost of smoking-related fires; and the loss in economic output from the deaths of smokers and passive smokers.
The deaths of passive smokers alone cost this nation more than £700 million per year. Non-smokers who are exposed to passive smoking in the home, have a 25 per cent increased risk of heart disease and lung cancer.
In short, smoking is the single largest preventable cause of serious ill health and one of the most expensive.
So, will plain packaging make the slightest difference?
Maybe, maybe not; but not to try to dissuade people from taking up smoking isn’t just bad economics; it is an affront to human dignity. It’s akin to saying, ‘We don’t feel that the lives of 106,000 Brits are worth saving. We don’t recognize their inherent worth as human beings or the value of the contribution they could make.’
Clearly, the British government is aware of this and has strong public backing for reducing the incidence of smoking.
With majority community support, it has already banned smoking in public buildings and on public transport. Now, it is asking what more it can do – short, that is, of banning the habit altogether, which would be a step too far in terms of civil liberties, as well as totally unworkable.
Last year, the Policy Exchange think tank called upon the government to apply a range of measures to reduce smoking in the UK. For example, it suggested an increase in tax on hand-rolled tobacco, so that this would no longer be a cheaper alternative to ready made cigarettes.
It also suggested that pregnant mothers across the country should have access to a specialist stop smoking service, with financial incentives of £10 per week being offered to mums-to-be under the age of 21.
If the new government has done anything more with these ideas than its predecessor, it certainly hasn’t said much about it, but they’re worthy of support.
What the government must also do, even in this season of cutbacks, is invest in more inventive and engaging education programmes. Providing financial backing for marketing campaigns that show the full, graphic effects of smoking would be useful.
When did you last see a graphic TV ad campaign that shows the deadly impact of cigarette smoke? When did you last see an ad that showed children mourning a prematurely dead father or mother; or someone in middle age facing the certain knowledge that they’ll never work or travel again, because of smoking-related illness?
A good start might be something along the lines of the government’s current ‘F.A.C.T’ campaign on the impact of strokes.
Investing in new education programmes for schools would be a help, too. The fact that such programmes have sometimes been ineffectual doesn’t mean that they can’t and shouldn’t be improved.
Education, like advertising, needs to hit emotions, to trigger primal responses. Dry facts won’t change behaviour – not in an age of emotionally immersive gaming and digital media.
Research has long shown that emotion is a powerful factor in the desire to smoke.
People who smoke enjoy the many small rituals associated with lighting up. From tapping their pockets to locate the box; to striking up a light; to the way they hold the cigarette and exhale the smoke – all are a part of the smoker’s routine and supply part of the pleasure they derive from it.
Psychologists describe these rituals as comfort behaviours, which provide reassurance and a sense of control.
Plain packaging won’t deny smokers these small, sometimes unconsciously enjoyed pleasures. It will do little to dissuade people who are already committed smokers. They are, after all, already ignoring the glaring medical warning on every pack.
Yet it may offer another incremental step in making smoking seem less sexy for the young who haven’t yet taken up the habit.
Where children and young people are concerned, the power of the image shouldn’t be underestimated.
Young people take their behavioural cues from appearances as much as, or more than, facts. That’s especially true in an age where rampant celebrity culture has ensured that vacuity and image often takes precedence over substance and reality.
I doubt that many young people buy cigarettes primarily because they like the design on the box. But in a hyper-marketed consumer market, image is always a factor influencing choice.
In marketing and business circles, academics now study ‘Visual Persuasion’ - the role visual images play in persuasive communication.
Strangely, in a world where we’ve grown up with visual advertising, this field of study is relatively new. Its experts say that there are three defining properties of images.
One of them is their lack of a propositional syntax; the fact that visual images aren't able explicitly to express an argument by, for example, stating a generalisation or drawing a causal inference.
In everyday English, images don’t build or defend logical arguments.
In many ways, this is the aspect of visual advertising that most impacts the young, because they’re less well attuned to logic and more to emotional response – arguably increasingly so, given the popularity of instant-gratification, mobile visual media.
The pop culture places more value on having one’s immediate emotional needs met than taking a more measured and thoughtful approach to life.
No, on its own, stuffing cigarettes into boring, plain packages won’t make a huge difference.
Yet it might have an impact as part of a much wider strategy. If it has even the slimmest chance of reducing this life-destroying habit, it deserves a try.