Do marketing and branding really determine the health choices we make? While there is much debate over the efficacy of generics versus branded medicines, what about with cigarettes?

In September 2012, Australia mandated that tobacco manufacturers only package cigarettes in plain brown packages with three-quarters of the front taken up by health warnings. A study two months after the launch of these new packages of cigarettes sought to determine whether the discreet, yet slightly offensive packaging would change smokers' views on quitting and on the quality of their tobacco.

In phone interviews of 536 Australian smokers, of whom 72 percent smoked from a plain pack of cigarettes and 37 percent smoked from a branded pack, researchers identified differences in opinion regarding the new Australian law as well as the acceptability of smoking. Researchers found that 30 percent of plain pack and 20 percent of branded pack smokers thought their quality of cigarettes was lower than it had been before the law was passed. Similarly, 25 percent of plain pack smokers reported that their satisfaction from the cigarettes they smoked was far lower than it had been before the law.

Most notably, the plain pack smokers indicated the desire to quit more so than those smoking from branded packs. Plain pack smokers not only agreed with the new law, but also indicated that they considered quitting highly on their list of priorities. While the branded pack smokers did not indicate much priority toward quitting, by the end of the study, the replacement of branded cigarette packing with plain packaging was complete, and 80 percent of participants in the survey reported smoking from them.

The result of the rise in plain packaging use, as well as the attitude about cigarettes coming from the plain packages, is a promising one. As a result of the change in packaging, smokers found their cigarettes less appealing. They stated that the cigarettes were less satisfying and of lower quality, which created desires to quit.

Previous studies of Australian smokers found that 73 percent intend to quit, while more than 90 percent regret having started. Smokers may find this new packaging to be a motivational reminder for quitting, as well as a way to reduce the appeal of smoking to younger generations. This strategy to do away with smoking, however, has not been tested in other countries. However, since it is based in the appeal of smoking, it is likely to be successful elsewhere.

Source: Wakefield MA, Hayes L, Durkin S, Borland R. Introduction effects of the Australian plain packaging policy on adult smokers: a cross-sectional study. BMJ. 2013.