Big tobacco packaging challenge burns out

The Australian subsidiaries of tobacco giants Philip Morris and British Tobacco lost their final court challenge on August 16 against the Australian government’s proposed legislation that mandates all tobacco products be packaged in plain packaging. The only distinguishing features on packs will be the brand names, which will be in a standard font and size.

Their bid to appeal an earlier High Court decision was overturned in the Federal Court. It’s a surprising outcome for an industry that makes billions every year. Retail sales of tobacco products in 2006-07 were $10.1 billion, which equated to almost 5% of all Australian retail sales. Furthermore, $6.5 billion, or nearly 3% of total government revenue, was raised from the sale of tobacco products in 2005-06.

So why would big tobacco care so much about it is packaging? It’s because they want to preserve their brand. Every year big tobacco spends millions in marketing that tries to convince people to smoke and, in particular, to smoke their brand.

Cigarettes are unique consumer items. The negative health effects of smoking are widely known. Smoking causes addiction. For half of all smokers it will cause death. Smoking will cause about 15,000 people to die prematurely this year.

Tobacco companies need marketing to convince people to want something that is likely to kill them. Of course tobacco companies know that marketing isn’t just about selling the product: it’s about manufacturing the demand, manufacturing consumer wants, and tapping into their desires and insecurities. Big tobacco’s marketing campaigns have traditionally been effective and it helps that their product is addictive.

Like all marketing, cigarette packages aim to entice the viewer into trying the product and buying the lifestyle. They do this by segmenting their market and tailoring their messaging to specific audiences. It targets those who want a low stress and carefree lifestyle, who want to be thin, happy or, most of all, cool.

At a recent music festival in Leipzig, Germany, I was confronted by the slightly obscure advertising slogan: “Don’t be a maybe.” On closer inspection, I discovered this slogan was the latest marketing brainchild of the Marlboro brand, owned by Philip Morris.

The video ads played before and after bands said that “maybe never wrote a song”. The marketing strategy included young people in “don’t be a maybe” t-shirts handing out free stuff and asking festival goers to complete “don’t be a maybe” surveys to win further prizes.

Such advertising has been pulled from the streets of Berlin, but the message at this festival was clear. Taking risks is cool — smoking is cool.

It’s not the sort of advertising campaign that you would see at a festival in Australia. Over the past 20 years a strong health movement has pushed back big tobacco. A huge part of this campaign has been to limit tobacco advertising.

The tobacco companies have had to rely on different ways to push their product. As a result, packaging is now a major component of their overall marketing strategy, which is designed to target young people, people that have recently quit and people who don't smoke often.

The plain packaging of cigarettes is an important step towards a clean air future and a blow to big tobacco. However, much more work is needed to understand of the historical, political and cultural reasons that people smoke and attempt to address them.

[Quitting has instant and long-term health benefits. If you are thinking about quitting call Quitline on 13 78 48.]

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