No more brands: good idea?

Death cigarettes 1991-1995

One idea that pops up in Britain every now and then, and is now once again gaining ground, is the notion that another good way to reduce smoking in the population would be to force tobacco to be sold in generic packaging; no more branding. This idea is common not only to the anti-smoking crowd there but has some strength in the tobacco harm reduction community as well.

To my knowledge this has never been seriously considered in America where to the jaundiced eye it would seem that a few civilian deaths would never be considered that good a reason to interfere with potential profits or even commercial speech. But in Britain, there appears to be a much stronger anti-corporate trend in general, and when mixed with the every increasing nannyism of the state make ideas like removing branding quite acceptable.

The idea is of course that commercial packaging increases the attractiveness of the product and may entice new users. Though the general consensus seems to be that branding operates chiefly to keep customers it is probably also true that it might influence a first purchase of tobacco. I would suspect however that the packaging is more likely associated with a prior context like the community; people tend to smoke what their friends do, and thus strengthen existing bonds.

But there is every possibility that debranding might erode any residual coolness of the category and thus lose a few users.

However, I do see a number of drawbacks.

1. Branding can be used as a powerful bridge to move people to less harmful forms of nicotine use. New categories like smokeless tobacco can be intimidating but not so much when it comes from the same company.

2. Losing branding is quite likely to increase black market tobacco purchases. Not only might the black market enhance their product with branding but anyone who is deprived of a distinguishing style will be more likely to take advantage of much cheaper sources. And of course, any increase in the black market means loss of tax revenue, loss of information about tobacco use in the population, and the loss of the existing quality control which might result in greater harm.

But overall, those who really think that debranding will drop smoking rates should consider how much debranding has hurt marijuana usage.


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