Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 5 - April 2011
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Study shows young smokers prefer brand name cigarettes

By Joe Strizzi

Despite the fact that contraband cigarettes are much cheaper, kids are more likely to smoke brand-name cigarettes, according to an analysis of data from the Youth Smoking Survey by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSC). PSC released the results of its analysis on January 19, highlighting the brand preferences of youth in elementary and high schools.  It also provided estimates of the revenues received by governments, multinational tobacco companies and retailers from youth smoking.

“Nationally, the big winner in the competition for starter smokers is Philip Morris International, whose Canadian subsidiary [Rothmans, Benson & Hedges] makes brands favoured by more than a third of Canadian school students,” said Cynthia Callard, Executive Director of PSC. “Japan Tobacco International (JTI) has the brand loyalty of one-quarter of these children and British American Tobacco comes in third as the manufacturer of brands preferred by one-sixth.”

The most popular brands smoked by the youths surveyed were Export ‘A’ at 15%, Canadian Classics at 13% and Belmont at 11%; both Macdonald and du Maurier came in at 9%.

PSC also found that both girls and boys preferred Rothmans, Benson & Hedges (RBH) brands, with 39% and 32% respectively. RBH cigarettes are also the most popular in all provinces with at least 35%,  except in Quebec, where JTI-Macdonald brands are the choice of 39%.

The data was obtained from the Public Use Microdata of Health Canada’s 2008-2009 Youth Smoking Survey (YSS). The survey was conducted in grade schools and high schools (grades 6 to 12), with over 50,000 students responding from all provinces. The Territories are not included in the survey.

Based on this data, PSC estimates that industry revenue from youth smokers in Canada totals $14 million per year. Provincial and federal governments receive, collectively, $83 million a year in revenue from tobacco taxes on cigarettes smoked by Canadian youth, representing $380 for each of the 220,000 young Canadian smokers.

Contraband a problem with young people?

A report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal released in 2009 found that contraband cigarettes — or those purchased from First Nations reserves — made up 17% of all brands consumed by adolescents. The results were higher in Ontario and Quebec, rising to 25%.

In April 2010, the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco announced that more needed to be done to stop children and teens from smoking contraband cigarettes, estimating that more than 60,000 students in the province in grades seven through 12 are using contraband cigarettes.

According to the Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCSA), contraband cigarettes are driving up smoking among youth. The CCSA’s 2008 Youth Contraband Study was conducted by the research company Arcus Group. They visited 80 high schools in Ontario and 75 in Quebec to collect cigarette butts from public grounds outside school property.  Collections were done after school hours. A total of 22,498 cigarette butts were collected, examined and classified in three categories: legal, contraband or unknown.  The study reported that in Ontario, 26% of high school smokers’ cigarette butts were contraband, while in Quebec, contraband comprised 36% of butts collected.  A similar study conducted at 105 high schools in Ontario and Quebec in 2007 showed consistent results, with illegal cigarettes making up 24% in Ontario and 35% in Quebec. 

In October, the CCSA asked the federal and provincial governments to adopt a freeze on new regulation or taxation of legal tobacco products until the authorities had significantly reduced the contraband tobacco rate to under 10% for a sustained period.

However, PSC’s analysis of the national YSS data revealed that native cigarettes were favoured by less than one-tenth of school-aged smokers across the country, leading many tobacco control advocates to believe that the CCSA and others focus on contraband is a distraction tactic.

“One million cigarettes are smoked by school-aged children in Canada each day,” said Callard. “Most of these cigarettes are legally manufactured and are fully tax paid. By focusing on the 10% of the youth market that they have lost to illegal manufacturers, tobacco companies and retailers are trying to deflect attention from their own culpability in the continuation of the entirely preventable disease of tobacco addiction.”

“From a health perspective, there is no difference between the risks of youth smoking legally or illegally manufactured cigarettes. Both are addictive, both produce the same mix of toxic chemicals, both can and do lead to illness and premature death.”


Would plain packaging help?

Colourful and uniquely shaped packs are key marketing tools cigarette companies use to make their products attractive and interesting, particularly to young people, according to researchers Becky Freeman and Simon Chapman, following a review of tobacco industry trade magazines and internal tobacco industry documents.

The researchers from the University of Sydney, Australia, feel that packages should be made as unattractive as possible. They urge that tobacco products be sold in plain packs with only a brand name and a health warning.

In their article, The case for the plain packaging of tobacco products, published in the April 2008 issue of the journal Addiction, the authors argue that with tough regulations on promotion in many developed countries, cigarette manufacturers view the pack as their most ‘treasured advertising medium.’ Research studies consistently show that packages that are plain also appeal less to young people who perceive them as dull.

The Non-Smokers’ Rights Association believes that plain packaging is not sufficient to stop tobacco manufacturers from using the pack as a key promotional vehicle. In their report, The Case for Plain and Standardized Tobacco Packaging, NSRA presents numerous Canadian and international examples showing how companies are increasingly making use of features such as pack size, shape and opening style to generate new interest in their brands and increase sales.

A March 2010 study entitled Plain Packaging Regulations for Tobacco Products: the Impact of Standardizing the Color and Design of Cigarette Packs, by David Hammond, assistant professor in the Department of Health Studies & Gerontology of the University of Waterloo and an expert on tobacco packaging, found that plain packaging significantly reduces brand appeal, especially among youth and young adults.

With plain and standardized packaging, the only distinguishing feature would be the brand name, printed in small, standard script in black ink. The main colour of all packages — on the outside and on the inside — would be dull brown or gray or some other unattractive colour. In every other respect — size, texture, material, method of opening — all the packages would be identical. This would eliminate tin containers, glossy finishes and embossed letters (except possibly for the health warning). The health warning and the list of toxic contents would be given more prominence. The packaging requirements would also apply to carton wrappings and any other form of packaging seen by consumers.

The tobacco industry’s response, according to health groups, is evidence itself of the importance of brand image. “The product itself . . . is very interesting, because in the cigarette business there is very little to distinguish them, particularly in Canada, because we all use the same kind of tobacco. We do not flavour our tobaccos. So the discrimination in product terms, pure blind product terms, without any packaging or name around it is very limited. You can tell if it’s very mild or very strong, and you might get some case characteristics that are different. But it’s very difficult for people to discriminate, blind tested. Put it in a package and put a name on it, and then it has a lot of product characteristics,” said Don Brown, president and CEO of Imperial Tobacco Canada, as cited in the book Smoke & Mirrors: the Canadian Tobacco War, written by the Canadian Cancer Society’s Rob Cunningham in 1996.

It should be noted that in September 2010, Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon announced that the government will mandate plain packaging of tobacco by January 2012.

Plain packaging has been endorsed by the 171 countries that have ratified the global public health treaty Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, including Australia and Canada. After reviewing research showing that plain packaging reduces the ‘cool’ factor of cigarettes for kids and strengthens the impact of health warning messages, the parties unanimously stated that “The effect of advertising or promotion on packaging can be eliminated if plain packaging is required.”