Smokers still being misled by cigarette packaging

In collaboration with the Press Association

Consumers are still being misled over the health hazards posed by cigarettes because of a loophole in packaging design regulations, Canadian scientists have said.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario studied 603 adults - including 312 smokers and 291 non-smokers - to find out whether design features and the wording on cigarette packs influences people's impressions of how harmful they are.

While there are regulations on the information that is allowed on cigarette packs, these are limited and only cover a handful of words, such as 'light', 'mild' and 'low-tar'.

The researchers showed participants nine pairs of fictitious cigarette packets, with each pair differing in just one way.

For instance, one pack said 'mild' and another said 'regular', while a second pair claimed to be 'light' versus 'ultra-light'.

Participants were allowed to investigate the packs, which carried standard health warnings.

Four fifths of the respondents wrongly claimed that the pack labelled 'smooth' would be less harmful than the one labelled 'regular'.

When shown a pack labelled 'silver' and another labelled 'full-flavour', 73 per cent of respondents incorrectly assumed that the former would be less hazardous.

The words 'mild', 'light' and 'ultra-light' were deemed to be associated with less harmful brands, while other more subtle features - such as the number '6' rather than '10' in a brand name and light blue packaging instead of dark blue branding - were also thought to signal a lower risk of harm.

Publishing their findings in the Journal of Public Health, the researchers claimed that existing regulations still allow tobacco companies to mislead consumers.

They have called for the list of banned words to be expanded and for other pack design elements to be prohibited.

Lead author David Hammond, professor of health studies at the University of Waterloo, commented: "Research has already shown that using words such as 'light,' 'mild' and 'low tar' on cigarette packaging misleads consumers into thinking that one brand carries a lower health risk than another ... but there has been virtually no independent research on these other packaging tactics to support broader regulation.

"Our study found that commonly-used words not covered by the bans, as well as other packaging design elements such as colour, the use of numbers and references to filters, were just as misleading, which means there's a loophole that needs to be closed."

Professor Hammond noted that "all cigarettes are equally hazardous, regardless of the filter type, what colour the pack is or what words appear on it".

He argued that the findings provide further evidence of the benefits of introducing plain packaging for tobacco products, a move that Cancer Research UK has called for in its 'Out of Sight, Out of Mind' campaign.

The expert added: "My guess is that standardised packaging regulations will follow a similar course as pictorial health warnings - one country will establish an international precedent and many others will follow soon after.

"People will look back at the day when we sold lethal products in attractive packaging as unacceptable."

Henry Scowcroft, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, added: "There's no such thing as a safe cigarette. The EU banned words like 'light' and 'mild' on cigarette packs in September 2003, but this research suggests smokers are still being misled by cigarette packaging.

"Cancer Research UK is campaigning to have cigarettes sold in plain packaging, and the House of Commons will be voting on new tobacco legislation in October."