Health experts from across the world meeting in South Africa's port city of Durban this week are discussing proposals to strip tobacco manufacturers of one of their last marketing tools: eye-catching packaging.
Representatives of the 160 countries that are party to the 2003 World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control have been meeting in Durban since Monday to discuss guidelines on the
implementation of the treaty.
Among the proposals under consideration is a move towards generic or plain cigarette packs, with standardised colours, fonts and "only the most objective information," including a very large health warning, according to Heather Selin of the Framework Convention secretariat.
"The idea would be to make them as ugly as possible," Selin said.
Colour coding to be gone
Gone would be the colour coding - red, blue, etc. - that
manufacturers use to denote the cigarettes' "strength" - a notion rejected by health experts as misleading. Plain cigarette packaging has been discussed in some countries like Canada as far back as 1995, according to Selin. Britain also began a consultative process around generic packaging earlier this year.
Given the global clampdown on cigarette advertising, packaging has become one of few remaining vehicles for brand promotion.
Manufacturers have, therefore, vigorously, resisted the push for stripped-down packs. "Not only would a standardisation of cigarette packaging drive down pricing and put an end to the appeal of premium cigarettes, which carry higher profit margins, but it would also lead to a rise in illicit cigarette trade," Tobacco Journal International said, heaping scorn on the idea in its September 2 issue.
Even if, as Selin deemed likely, the parties to the tobacco convention meeting in Durban decide to adopt new guidelines on plain packaging, governments would not be bound by them. But it would bolster calls for tighter regulations on packaging in countries that were already leaning that way, she said.
Also under discussion at the Durban conference, which closes Saturday, is a proposal to make pictorial health warnings, rather than text-only warnings, the norm on packs. Surveys in Canada, Singapore and Brazil, have found graphic warnings to be much more effective than text in turning people off smoking, particularly among lower-income groups.
The tobacco treaty merely states that health warnings "may" include pictures or pictograms. –(Sapa, November 2008)
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