WHO calls on countries to get ready for plain cigarette packaging

Buoyed by recent victories against Big Tobacco, the World Health Organization says the theme for this year's World No Tobacco Day, on May 31, is plain packaging of tobacco products.

Generic, drab cigarette packages may soon be on Canadian shelves

Following Australia's example, the World Health Organization is calling on other countries to "get ready" for plain packaging of cigarettes.

In an editorial published in the medical journal The Lancet, the WHO says plain packaging is a big step forward in reducing tobacco use and its related health risks.

Australia was the first country to adopt legislation for plain packaging in 2012. Just last week, the U.K. and France implemented their own legislation. Ireland will soon be next, and several other countries are considering a move to the generic packs. 

A tougher packaging law was part of the Canadian government's election platform. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the prime minister's mandate letter to Health Minister Jane Philpott said plain packaging should be a top priority.

Ban on branding

"It's not rocket science," says David Hammond.  He's an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, and part of his research focuses on interventions such as labelling and packaging to reduce chronic illness.

"The brands, the logos, they're there to appeal to young people," he says. Take the Marlboro man, for instance, the rugged horseman once commonly seen in tobacco ad campaigns. "That's one of the most valuable brands and images in the world," says Hammond. "People associate those images with positive images of smoking, whether that's being sexy or masculine."

Canadian smokers can expect a new, plainer look to their cigarette packages in the future. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Plain cigarette packaging like the type already used in Australia has a standard size. No more tall narrow packs like the "superslims" and "lipstick" packs, which target young females. The package is a neutral colour, "sort of drab, olive brown," with plain type fonts, says Hammond.

It prevents packages from serving as "mini-billboards that promote tobacco," according to a news release from the Canadian Cancer Society. But the graphic health warnings and pictures will remain.

"Anything that we can do to prevent people from starting in the first place or encourage people who are smokers to quit by offering them assistance is something," says Robert Reid, with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and a researcher in smoking cessation.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in Canada, where there are more than five million smokers.

"We've had bans on advertising for tobacco products. This is really, in many ways, just an extension of that, because the package has become one of the ways tobacco companies do market their brands extensively," says Reid.

An older version of cigarette packs lie on a table while workers have a drink at a pub in Sydney, Australia. The government introduced a groundbreaking bill in 2011 that changed the look of cigarette packages. (Rob Griffith/Associated Press)

In Australia, the introduction of generic smoking packages has helped reduce smoking, Hammond says. "There's no indication that there would be any difference in terms of the impact in Canada."

The theme for this year's World No Tobacco Day on May 31 is plain packaging of tobacco products. "These recent victories against Big Tobacco are another triumph for public health," says the editorial in the Lancet.

'Public relations stunt,' tobacco rep says 

A spokesperson for one tobacco company likened the proposed plain packaging legislation in Canada to nothing more than "a public relations stunt by the federal government mainly orchestrated by a few but loud anti-tobacco lobbyists." 

In an email to CBC News on Friday, Imperial Tobacco Canada's Jeff Guiler says the company has the right to have its trademarks on their products. 

"We will continue to defend ourselves against what we believe be be ineffective and excessive regulation." 

As to whether the tobacco giant will take on the Liberal government on its proposed plain packaging proposal, "we will have to wait and see what the government will introduce before making a final decision."

The U.K. ruling "will only encourage countries like Canada to move even more quickly," says Hammond. Canada, like other countries, "have all their ducks in a row, and have indicated their desire to implement plain packaging," he says.


Kas Roussy

Former CBC reporter

Kas Roussy was a senior reporter with the Health unit at CBC News. In her more than 30 years with CBC, Kas’s reporting took her around the globe to cover news in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chile, Haiti and China, where she was the bureau producer.