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The tobacco companies claim that branding on packs does not impact smoking initiation or overall consumption — it only affects “brand switching” and market share. For more detail on the research and evidence as to the effects of branding on tobacco packaging, see the Tobacco Branding page of the Tools and Resources.

11.1 The Tobacco Industry Claims Not to Target Children or Non-Smokers

British American Tobacco’s website has stated that:

A fundamental requirement of our marketing principles is that our marketing is aimed only at adult smokers and is not designed to engage or appeal to children.1

Japan Tobacco International, in its submission to the Irish Joint Committee on Health and Children stated that:

Minors are well aware of the health risks of smoking, but may choose to experiment anyway . . . Accordingly, measures focused on packaging are unlikely to be effective. [para. 6.4]

And in JTI’s response to the 2016 Canadian consultation on plain packaging, it states that there is no link between marketing and adolescent smoking initiation and that:

Branded packaging does not cause people to start or continue smoking . . . Branding does not promote the generic act of product consumption, nor can it persuade someone to join a mature, known category. Branded packaging conveys and builds upon brand attributes, and so can only be meaningful in differentiating brands, which is irrelevant to non-smokers. [pp. 32–34]

Philip Morris’s submission to the 2012 UK consultation2 stated that:

There is overwhelming evidence which demonstrates that brands and packaging have nothing to do with why young people begin smoking &helip; [and] it cannot be demonstrated that packaging has any effect on a person’s decision to smoke.

11.2 Tobacco Companies Continue to Publicly Argue That Packing has no Role in Advertising or Promotion

The tobacco companies seek to blur the overwhelming view of marketing theory and evidence that advertising affects overall consumption of a product. This despite all the internal tobacco industry documents to the contrary (see theTobacco Branding pageof the Tools and Resources).

Tobacco companies argue that branding only promotes brand switching by current smokers and has no effect on overall primary demand. They say that even a small amount of brand switching is worth a lot of money to them. However, cigarette brands enjoy the highest brand loyalty of all consumer products, with fewer than 10 percent changing brands annually. Brand choices are usually made early in the life of a smoker, with a high concordance between brand first smoked and the brand eventually selected as a usual brand. Thus, once a smoker embraces a cigarette brand, it is quite unlikely that they will change.

In British American Tobacco’s submission to the 2014 UK consultation,3 it stated:

At the outset, it must be recognised that packaging is not advertising. Packaging is the identification of the product. Thus, the effect of advertising, which is banned in the UK, is not relevant for the purposes of examining the effects of Plain Packaging that prohibits the use of trade marks to identify and distinguish products. In any event, and contrary to what the Chantler Report states, the evidence is not "clear", but rather is quite mixed, on the question of whether advertising causes or increases aggregate consumption. [paras. 7.17 – 7.18}

Imperial Tobacco in its response to the 2014 UK consultation on standardized packaging, stated that packaging has only 3 functions: physical (to protect the product); information (health warnings, yield amounts, and recycling etc); and brand differentiation (allowing customers to identify the brand of choice and driving competition as between tobacco companies). 4

Japan Tobacco International states that:

JTI does not agree that branded packaging acts as an advertisement, but in any event, there is a significant difference between acting as an advertisement for a cigarette brand, and as an advertisement for the activity of smoking. [para. 4.8]

The tobacco companies also made these arguments in their legal challenge to the plain packaging laws in the UK. In his judgment dismissing the claim, the judge noted that:

The tobacco industry has sought to argue, in these proceedings and in others, that all of its marketing activity, including packaging, aims solely to persuade existing adult smokers to switch brands rather than to persuade people (including in particular children) to take up smoking.5

In their submission to the Norway consultation, JTI also sought to argue that tobacco packaging does not influence smoking behavior. The company argued that packaging and advertising are not the same and should not be conflated. It claims that fundamental marketing theory shows that in a “mature market,” such as in Norway (where growth has slowed and awareness of the product is universal), marketing is not to persuade non-users to try the product but to persuade existing users to swap brands. They argue that branding promotes brands not the act of smoking.6

Tobacco companies have been making this argument about the role of advertising in mature markets for nearly three decades to seek to prevent any restrictions on tobacco advertising. It is noted in the US Surgeon General’s report that, at a congressional hearing in 1989, an industry spokesperson claimed that the function of advertising in a mature market “is to promote brand loyalty or brand switching.”7 Even then it was highlighted that textbooks state that when faced with a so-called mature market, advertising firms can and often should attempt to both increase usage among existing customers and to address potential new users.8 The surgeon general also pointed out that the strongest indicator that tobacco companies must seek out large numbers of new users stems from the feature of the tobacco market that millions of its customers die every year and millions more quit. The only way to maintain the mature market is to recruit new users.

11.3 The Counter Arguments

  • This argument has been made by tobacco companies for decades in relation to all restrictions on their advertising and promotion and has been rejected by all the research, evidence, and courts across the world. The argument is equally false when made against plain packaging.
  • The courts have repeated dismissed the industry argument. In the legal challenge to the UK plain packaging regulations, the High Court judge stated:
    This argument is unsustainable. It is not possible to design a product to appeal to adults (over 18s) without appealing, even inadvertently, to children. A number of the tobacco companies have strenuously denied that they target their product on children or even that they are interested in the impact of tobacco on children. But the Government medical advisers all say that, targeted or not, the lure to children remains strong and this is plain and obvious to the manufacturers.9
  • The argument is contrary to the WHO FCTC and its guidelines. These recognize that tobacco packaging and product design are “important elements of advertising and promotion” and recommend standardized packaging as a “means of eliminating the effects of advertising or promotion on packaging. Packaging, individual cigarettes or other tobacco products should carry no advertising or promotion, including design features than make products attractive.”
  • Encouraging young people to initiate smoking is critical to the tobacco industry’s survival. As an internal tobacco industry document stated:
    The smoking patterns of teen-agers are particularly important to Philip Morris . . . the share index is highest in the youngest group for all Marlboro and Virginia Slims packings. At least a part of the success of Marlboro Red during its most rapid growth period was because it became the brand of choice among teenagers.10

    Other internal documents show that a presentation to Philip Morris included the position that:

    Packs aimed at younger women should be 'slick, sleek, flashy, glittery, shiny, silky, bold.11
  • Advertising executives contradict the industry arguments: Advertising executive Emerson Foote, former Chairman of the Board of international advertising agency McCann-Erickson (which in the past had handled $20 million in tobacco account sales), dismissed this:
    The cigarette industry has been artfully maintaining that cigarette advertising has nothing to do with total sales. This is complete and utter nonsense. I am always amused by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products.12
  • The independent Chantler Review (see the Research Evidencepages of the Tools and Resources for details) considered the evidence and found that:
    Despite the long-held contention from the industry that all tobacco marketing is for the purpose of brand switching, there is clear evidence that exposure to tobacco advertising and promotion increases the likelihood of smoking.13

    and

    it is significant that in other consumer goods markets, where children can safely be allowed to participate in experiments, it has been proven that appealing branding does influence consumption.
  • Packaging is recognized as an important component in of the overall marketing strategy for all consumer goods. Tobacco is no exception. Packaging is particularly important for consumer products with a high degree of social visibility, such as cigarettes. Unlike many other consumer products, cigarettes are contained in packages that are displayed each time the product is used and are often left in public view between uses.
  • The US Surgeon General summarized evidence in 2014 and concluded that:
    The evidence is sufficient to conclude that advertising and promotional activities by the tobacco companies cause the onset and continuation of smoking among adolescents and young adults … Tobacco advertising recruits new users during their youth.14
Notes
  1. From the British American Tobacco website http://www.bat.com/imp (accessed June 2017)
  2. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/323971/PDF_2.pdf.
  3. Available from: http://www.bat.com/group/sites/uk__9d9kcy.nsf/vwPagesWebLive/DO9MSFD3/$FILE/medMD9MWB4B.pdf?openelement.
  4. Section 2.6.3, p. 25.
  5. R (British American Tobacco &Ors) v.Secretary of State for Health [2016] EWHC 1169 (Admin). Paragraph 75. Available from: https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/bat-v-doh.judgment.pdf.
  6. Of note is that JTI cites Kotler and Keller, Marketing Management (14th edition), on this point. In fact no such assertion is made about mature markets in that book but rather the book emphasizes the role of packaging as an advertising medium to increase sales; see annex C for more details.
  7. M.J. Elders. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People: A Report of the Surgeon General, p. 174.
  8. M.L. Rothschild.Advertising: from Fundamentals to Strategies Lexington (MA): “advertising should stress new uses, new users, and new usage occasions in an attempt to increase overall sales of the product class.”
  9. R (British American Tobacco &Ors) v. Secretary of State for Health [2016] EWHC 1169 (Admin). Paragraph 75.
  10. Philip Morris U.S.A.,M. Johnston, H. Daniel , and C. Levy. “Young Smokers — Prevalence, Trends, Implications and Related Demographic Trends.” March 31, 1981. Ness Motley Law Firm Litigation Documents. Available from: https://www.industrydocumentslibrary.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/fgpb0040 (accessed March 2,2017).
  11. Anon. “Opportunities in Packaging Innovation.” Philip Morris, 1992. Available from: http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/hwe36e00 (accessed January 29, 2017).
  12. L. Heise. “Unhealthy Alliance” in World Watch. October 1988, p.20.
  13. Para 3.7 Report of the Independent Review undertaken by Sir Cyril Chantler, 2014 available from: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/health/10035-tso-2901853-chantler-review-accessible.pdf.
  14. United States Department of Health and Human Services, Surgeon General, (2014). Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health.