Graphics smoke out the habit


Soon tobacco products will carry graphic images on them to discourage smoking, writes BRIAN KAVANAGH.

IN 1942, when esteemed French industrial designer Raymond Loewry received a commission to redesign the logo and packaging for American Tobacco’s Lucky Strike brand of cigarettes, he perhaps had little idea that his work in this regard would have a far more tangible impact on humanity than any of his previous endeavours.

Loewry’s input on iconic motifs for companies such as Coca-Cola, Spar and Shell may have powerfully ingratiated themselves with the popular consciousness, but it was his Lucky Strike target logo that ultimately synthesised a true pop icon for American advertising, art and cinema.

It also served to attract and expose tens of millions of people to a product that causes cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and 10 different forms of cancer.

So the World Health Organisation (WHO) did not choose “tobacco health warnings” as the theme of this year’s global No Tobacco Day without just cause. Starting on May 31st, the WHO began a major information and lobbying campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of cigarette advertising.

It also emphasised the effectiveness of placing pictorial images directly on cigarette packaging in dissuading people from starting smoking and providing an unambiguous depiction of the consequences of smoking for those who already smoke.

According to the Department of Health commissioned Survey of Lifestyles, Attitude and Nutrition (Slán), rates of smoking among the Irish populace have declined over the period 1998-2007 from 33 per cent to 29 per cent.

However, it is estimated that close to 7,000 people die each year in Ireland from smoking-related illnesses, and tobacco has been identified by the WHO as the leading cause of death and disability in the world.

Introducing an effective tobacco control strategy, including the use of graphic pictorial images on cigarette boxes, is seen as a crucial step in reducing tobacco-related deaths.

In May 2005, the European Commission bolstered the existing EU Tobacco products Directive of 2002 by recommending that member state governments adopt 14 graphic pictorial health warnings from a library of 42 colour photographs and other illustrations for inclusion on cigarette cartons.

According to the HSE, pre-testing of the EU library has been carried out and the images for use on the Irish market have been selected. Proposals have already been submitted to Government to amend the existing tobacco legislation, and one of these amendments will allow the Minister for Health to introduce combined text and photo warnings on tobacco products. It is anticipated that this will be enacted before the Dáil summer recess.

Popular wisdom would dictate that people are free to choose whether to smoke and graphic images would be unlikely to affect their knowledge of, or inclination to buy, cigarettes.

However, a four-country survey conducted by Dr David Hammond for peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control determined that smokers who live in countries which have government-mandated health warnings are far more likely to have knowledge of the negative effects of tobacco consumption.

Canada was the only country among the group to carry pictorial warnings of smoking-related impotence and, accordingly, Canadians were three times more likely to believe that smoking can cause impotence.

Dr Fenton Howell, HSE director of Public Health, welcomes the planned legislation: “We would be delighted to support the legislation which would have cigarette packaging display graphic images of the consequences of smoking. You would hope they would encourage smokers, or a percentage of them, to quit. Evidence based around the world would suggest that the more support you make available to people who wish to quit smoking, the more [people] avail of it.”

Sarah, a 21-year-old smoker who works in the media industry, agrees on the value of pictorial warnings: “Most packs of cigarettes just have a text warning, which you barely notice unless you make a conscious effort to read it. The text also blends in with the pack. I think graphic images would be a far better deterrent, as you would not help noticing a graphic image like cancerous lungs and, yes, it would have a much stronger effect than text.”

But not all smokers are swayed by visual incentives. “I smoke 20 cigarettes a day and graphic warnings wouldn’t make me give up,” says Jonathan, a professional in his mid-30s. “They have those on the boxes in Canada, where I lived for a period, and they did not bother me,” he adds.

Although it is difficult to assess how effective these measures will be in an Irish context, what is certain is that packaging is a crucial marketing appendix for tobacco companies, and the method by which cigarette cartons are designed and displayed forms an invaluable way of communicating brand image and creating a consumer presence.

Studies on interpreting the cigarette package as brand image, such as the one conducted by Dr Melanie Wakefield and published in Tobacco Control, have moved some countries, including Ireland, to eliminate in-store advertising of tobacco products.

In addition to the planned introduction of pictorial warnings, on July 1st this year restrictions on the display and advertising of tobacco-related products in Irish retail premises will come in to effect, as Norma Cronin, health promotion manager with the Irish Cancer Society, explains: “The legislation, which will come into force on July 1st, is very important in terms of communicating a strong public health message. Point of sale display is a form of advertising and it has an important effect on young people starting to smoke.

“Young people are the type of people recruited by the tobacco industry, as there is a strong addictiveness factor there.”

What is also remarkable is that, in addition to having the capability to act as powerful deterrents to smoking, graphic warning labels can also be a capable and cost-effective means of transmitting health information.

A large proportion of anti-smoking awareness campaigns are funded by the HSE Health Promotion budget, run under the auspices of the HSE social marketing programme.

“Health Promotion has a public awareness campaign running at intervals throughout the year promoting the National Smokers’ Quitline,” says Hugh Scully, business manager of population health with the HSE. It plans to spend €600,000 on this campaign this year.

“The campaign’s aim is to raise awareness of the support available to those who are contemplating stopping smoking,” says Scully.

The HSE works with the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) to ensure effective governance, management and operation of the National Smokers’ Quitline.

The ICS manages the day-to-day operation of the quitline, as well as providing counselling, advice, information and support.

“The expected cost of the service is €180,000 for 2009,” he adds.

The quitline can be contacted on 1850 201 203, Monday to Saturday, from 8am to 10pm.

Other Government-backed institutions include the Office of Tobacco Control which, says spokesman Nigel Fox, “assists in the introduction of tobacco control legislation”. The HSE allocates the OTC about €2.5 million a year, according to its annual report.

International research has demonstrated the value of vivid anti-smoking images in helping to discourage people from buying tobacco; how well they fair in an Irish context will soon be known.