Plain Packaging

With the advertising of tobacco increasingly banned in more and more forms throughout the world, the pack has fast become the most important promotional vehicle for reaching potential and current smokers.

Cancer Council Victoria from Tobacco in Australia

Tobacco packaging is a mobile billboard promoting consumption of tobacco products. If you strip back the decoration, gloss and misleading elements of tobacco packaging, you are left with little more than a box of deadly, addictive products that kill approximately 6 million people a year and harm the health of many more. Plain packaging helps reveal the grim reality of tobacco products.

Plain packaging, or standardized packaging, comprises "measures to restrict or prohibit the use of logos, colours, brand images or promotional information on packaging other than brand names and product names displayed in a standard colour and font style". The guidelines for implementation of Article 11 (Packaging and labelling of tobacco products) and Article 13 (Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship) of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) recommend that countries consider adopting plain packaging.

Objectives of plain packaging

The aims of plain packaging are to:

  • reduce the attractiveness of tobacco products;
  • eliminate the effect of tobacco packaging as a form of advertising and promotion;
  • eliminate package design techniques that may suggest that some products are less harmful than others; and
  • increase the noticeability and effectiveness of health warnings.

The results of experimental studies, surveys and focus-group studies show that plain packaging achieves its objectives. This conclusion is supported by three systematic reviews of the evidence from studies conducted since adoption of the guidelines to Articles 11 and 13 of the WHO FCTC.

For example, research in Australia, published in BMJ Open, shows that smokers who smoke cigarettes from a plain rather than a branded pack are:

  • 81% more likely to have thought about quitting at least once a day and to rate quitting as a high priority in their lives;
  • 70% more likely to say that they find cigarettes less satisfying ; and
  • 66% more likely to think that their cigarettes are of poorer quality .

Australia and Europe lead plain packaging movement

In December 2012, Australia became the first country to fully implement tobacco plain packaging, and globalization of plain packaging is now under way. France, Ireland and the United Kingdom have all passed laws requiring the use of plain packaging from May 2016; and other European countries are at advanced stages in the policy process. For example, Norway and Slovenia are preparing laws to impose plain packaging.

Recommendations for introducing plain packaging

WHO recommends that plain packaging be used as part of a comprehensive approach to tobacco control, which includes comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship and other tobacco packaging and labelling measures, such as health warnings.
Plain packaging is a suitable policy for any country that is taking a comprehensive approach to tobacco control. The WHO Regional Office for Europe supports the plain packaging movement through bilateral work and by convening leading countries to confront potential legal challenges from the tobacco industry together. Countries can expect substantial opposition to plain packaging from the tobacco industry, but they should rest assured that the evidence base justifies introduction of plain packaging as part of a comprehensive approach to tobacco control.