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Consumers notice certain elements of packaging. But many other cues get registered only subconsciously, which has prompted the United Kingdom to consider banning variations in cigarette packaging. That is, all cigarette boxes would look the same, with white or brown coloring, simple type, no logos, and prominent warnings.

The U.K. Department of Health says that by making all cigarette packaging the same, consumers, and especially children, will be less attracted to them, recognize them as a dangerous product, and not mistakenly accept the claims that some cigarettes are healthier than others. As evidence, it cites the effects of less glamorous cigarette advertising, which has helped reduce the number of people who start smoking.

Although legally, cigarette companies may no longer market cigarettes as “light” or “low tar,” packaging may enable the companies to imply such seemingly healthier attributes. Consumers might make healthy or “light” associations with cigarette products packaged in silvery colors or that use natural images such as flowers or leaves.

Tobacco companies argue the U.K. legislation would infringe on their corporate assets. They also assert that plain packaging would encourage low-price, illegal cigarettes, which could easily copy the generic packaging.

The Department of Health counters that other marketing restrictions have reduced tobacco use, and so should packaging restrictions. In the meantime, the country is heavily policing sales of low-price cigarettes, banning cigarette vending machine, requiring the removal of in-store displays, and moving cigarettes under sales counter. Its goal: To reduce the smoking rate from 20 percent to 10 percent of the population by 2020.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does the United Kingdom’s Department of Health want to make cigarette packaging generic? 
  2. Do you make purchasing decisions based on the packaging of a product? Jeanne Whalen, “Battle Over U.K. Cigarette Packaging Gears Up,” The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2010.
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