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Everything looks better in colour … except cigarette packs

Long gone are the days when the tobacco industry could try to entice Australians to smoke particular brands with sophisticated, well-researched package design, but many countries around the world are yet to adopt our landmark reforms in plain packaging.

In this latest edition of JournalWatch, Dr Melissa Stoneham looks at research into how tobacco companies have used colour on cigarette packaging and labelling to influence consumers perceptions of the taste, strength and health impacts of the cigarettes inside the packs.

She agrees with the research conclusion that such design features are effectively creating new products and argues that this creates regulatory loopholes that should be a focus for jurisdictions that don’t yet have plain packaging.

This post comes as Parliament’s Health, Aged Care and Sport Committee has commenced an inquiry into the use of electronic cigarettes and personal vaporisers in Australia, at the request of Health Minister Greg Hunt.

In this Op Ed for Fairfax, Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in the School Public Health at the University of Sydney, warns that the inquiry follows intense industry lobbying and that it should not lead to removing nicotine regulation from the Therapeutic Goods Administration. To do so, he says, would be “to learn nothing from the historic failure to regulate cigarettes”.

Submissions to the inquiry close on Thursday, 6 July.


Dr Melissa Stoneham writes

What is your favourite colour? Apparently the most popular colour in the world is blue and only 5 per cent of people claim yellow as their favourite. Personally, I quite like yellow which is a warm colour and, according to the psychology of colour, also means that I am happy, energetic and enthusiastic. I will take that, thanks!

The psychology of colour is based on the mental and emotional effects colours have on people and it has been the basis of research for some time. For example, this study of the influence of colour on a visitor’s emotional wellness found that a cool colour-themed guest room, particularly green, is preferable. More bizarre, perhaps, was the study that found wearing red shoes may have advantages for some basketball players, giving a sense of being taller and staying longer in the air.

The use of colour in marketing has long been used as a persuasion strategy. Brands such as Apple, Dell, and GE display a wide array of colour choices for laptops, mobile phones, and even toasters and refrigerators. Colour has become an important component of a brand’s visual equity – the act of being visible in stores – and value is derived from the look and feel of a product through its brand colour.

Colour is central to this month’s JournalWatch article on research led by Lauren Lempert from the University of California into how tobacco companies use cigarette pack colours to influence consumer brand choices and perceptions of harm.

Published in Tobacco Control, the analysis builds on previous research examining  previously secret tobacco industry documents to identify additional ways in which cigarette companies tested and manipulated pack colours to affect consumers’ perceptions of the cigarettes’ flavour and strength.

A number of past studies have accessed industry documents. Wakefield et al. accessed websites (that of tobacco companies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)). Bond et al. accessed documents via the tobacco document archives through the World Wide Web, however many recent advances in tobacco control can be credited to the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) between United States jurisdictions and the five largest tobacco companies in America concerning the advertising, marketing and promotion of tobacco products. The MSA required that millions of previously internal tobacco industry documents were to be made publicly available, enabling tobacco control researchers and advocates to uncover strategies employed by the tobacco industry.

Influencing ‘tastes’ in smoking

We have seen such research before, looking at the importance of descriptions and design of packs and the use of pack design and colour to communicate the impression of lower tar or milder cigarettes.

Lempert’s  article and research builds on this work and looks at pack designs and colours not only as a communication and marketing tool, but also how they influence smoking experiences themselves. This testing goes beyond using pack colours to communicate information about a brand or sub-brand that might be associated with a particular taste to where pack colours can shift consumer perceptions of the cigarette’s taste.

Between January 2013 and December 2014 the researchers reviewed over 400 tobacco industry documents available at the University of California’s Truth Tobacco Documents Library and found that 54 related to tobacco companies research and understanding about pack colour and the influence on consumer perceptions of the taste of cigarettes.

The findings are fascinating. Here are just a few.

The article identifies that consumer perceptions of ‘full’, ‘rich’ or ‘strong’ flavoured cigarettes are associated with red and dark colours such as brown or black, whereas consumer perceptions of ‘mild’, ‘smooth’ and ‘mellow’ flavours are associated with light colours such as light blue or silver. Menthol and ‘cool’ or ‘fresh’ are universally associated with green, and low strength is associated with white or very light shades.

Other findings included particular pack colours led consumers to perceive the cigarettes had what companies considered ‘good’ and ‘bad’ attributes, including ‘full’ or ‘enhanced’ flavour, ‘rich tobacco’ taste, ‘strong’ taste, ‘good aftertaste’, ‘taste like Marlboro’, ‘smooth’, ‘satisfying’, ‘low strength’ or ‘artificial’ taste.

In the Marlboro documents, it was identified that Marlboro smokers generally preferred their cigarettes in a red package, which they perceived as having more taste than those in a blue pack. Some found cigarettes in the blue package ‘too mild’ or ‘not easy drawing’, while others perceived the cigarettes in the red pack as ‘too strong’ or ‘harsher’ than those in the blue pack.

The paper also describes how some tobacco companies found that they could manipulate pack colours to influence perceptions  that the cigarettes were ‘higher quality’, ‘more prestigious’ or ‘upscale’, ‘convey trust’ or ‘responsibility’, were ‘more exciting or relaxing’ or were ‘especially appealing to men, women or young people’.

For example, in the 1970s, British American Tobacco (BAT) began using the repertory grid technique (colour’s influence on consumers’ assessment of the products’ sentory properties) to quantify how important brand image variables, including colour, are to individuals’ assessments of cigarettes’ sensory properties. In other words, people were shown different cigarette designs and asked what association the pack appearance created, what type of smoking experience they would expect from the cigarettes inside those packs and the general personality of people they would expect to smoke those cigarettes.

The BAT interviewers then identified a set of ‘constructs’ and created opposite terms associated with each pack. BAT hoped that this initial study would demonstrate how the repertory grid interviewing technique could quantify consumers’ subjective perceptions of cigarette characteristics and further inform their pack design. The outcome from this type of industry research was to better identify how to ensure cigarette purchases were based not only on the sum of its contents, but associated imagery as well. Sneaky buggers!

So what can we do?

As of July 2016, 180 countries had become Parties to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which calls for tobacco product regulation. The Guidelines for Implementation of FCTC Articles 9 (product content regulation) and 10 (product disclosures regulation) recommend that Parties prohibit or restrict ingredients that may be used to increase the attractiveness of tobacco products and/or that have certain colouring properties that make the products more appealing or create the impression that they have a health benefit.

This research by Lempert and her colleagues has found that tobacco companies adjust pack designs and colours to alter consumers’ perceptions of the products inside the packs and to create the impression that some cigarettes are less harmful than others.

It seems to me that this could be a breach of Articles 9 and 10. In fact, the authors of this paper state that “when tobacco companies change pack colours, they effectively create new tobacco products, just as when they make changes to the cigarettes’ ingredients, additives or flavourings and therefore all new tobacco products should be subject to equivalently rigorous new tobacco product review.”

As colour cannot be regulated in the same way as words or pictures, it has been a regulatory loophole for tobacco companies. The paper’s suggestion is that all new tobacco products, including colour, should be subject to equivalently rigorous new tobacco product review.

It is pretty clear that aesthetics influence both affect and perceptions of quality and that colour is an important component of aesthetic design. This paper demonstrates that the tobacco companies have spent substantial time and resources developing their packaging colour strategies.  As pack colours have now been shown to have the potential to alter smokers’ experience of the cigarettes’ taste and strength, I think the tobacco and public health advocates can now start to argue that pack colour changes are tantamount to product changes, which could have implications for laws regulating the introduction of new tobacco products.

And who said obesity was the new tobacco?

The article – Lauren Lempert & Stanton Glanz (2017). Packaging colour research by tobacco companies: the pack as a product characteristic. Tobacco Control; 26(3).


About JournalWatch

The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA (PHAIWA) JournalWatch service reviews 10 key public health journals on a monthly basis, providing a précis of articles that highlight key public health and advocacy related findings, with an emphasis on findings that can be readily translated into policy or practice. The Journals reviewed include:

Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH)

Journal of Public Health Policy (JPHP)

Health Promotion Journal of Australia (HPJA)

Medical Journal of Australia (MJA)

The Lancet

Journal for Water Sanitation and Hygiene Development

Tobacco Control (TC)

American Journal of Public Health (AMJPH)

Health Promotion International (HPI)

American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM)

Injury Prevention (IJ)

These reviews are then emailed to all JournalWatch subscribers and are placed on the PHAIWA website. To subscribe click to Journal Watch click here.

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