The Eye of the Beholder

    Photo: Nopphon

    Not all smokers will be put off by the ‘dissuasively’ colored cigarette papers promoted by health activists.

    By George Gay

    Writing in this magazine two years ago about the pressures being placed on paper suppliers to the tobacco manufacturing industry, I claimed, uncontroversially I think, that the market for combustible cigarettes was declining. Later in the piece, and more controversially, I speculated that the part of the decline in demand for combustible cigarettes being caused by their substitution by vaping devices might slow because of policies being followed by some authorities.

    Although that speculation still has validity today in many parts of the world, significantly in countries with big populations, such as China, India and the U.S., in the U.K., there has been a development that is aimed at putting a different hue on things.

    In June, Javed Khan published his U.K. government-commissioned review into government policies aimed at reducing the incidence of tobacco smoking in England to 5 percent by 2030, Making Smoking Obsolete. As part of that review, Khan suggested the government should rethink how cigarettes look—that it “should use every part of the cigarette, and what’s in the pack, to communicate the harms of smoking and offer opportunities to quit.” He gave three examples of what he was getting at:

    • mandating anti-smoking messages on cigarette sticks, such as the number of “minutes of life lost” per cigarette;
    • using dissuasive colors (like green or brown) on individual cigarette sticks or hand-rolling papers; and
    • [including] cigarette pack inserts that provide information on the health benefits of quitting, supported by web links that direct smokers to support for stopping smoking.

    I am little interested here in the third idea, though my concern would be that the information provided would be grossly misleading as is much of the “information” currently churned out on tobacco smoking. And I would say just two things in relation to the first. One is that you must always be careful what you wish for. Before mandating the printing onto cigarette paper of the estimated number of minutes of life lost to smoking those cigarettes, I would suggest checking whether this might prove to be a promotion among some young people, especially in the short term. Youngsters, at least those who might be drawn to smoking, tend to be perverse in some ways as was proved fairly conclusively when, in the 1990s, students in the U.K. took the Death brand cigarettes to their hearts. The second thing I would say is that, as far as I am aware, we possibly all lose more minutes of life to pollution than smokers lose to smoking, but of course it is difficult to disseminate the pollution figure because you cannot write on air no matter how polluted it is.

    Perception Matters

    But it is the second idea that interests me most. To my way of thinking, you have to try to be objective when describing and talking about colors, not least because not everybody perceives or experiences the same color in the same way. For instance, when the idea of standardized cigarette packaging was first raised in Australia, it was suggested that the background color should be an unattractive olive green. This idea went down like a lead balloon with Australian olive producers, and references to olive green were quickly shelved.

    In perhaps trying to sidestep such issues, Khan makes what to me is the mistake of claiming that all greens and browns are “dissuasive,” though I should point out that in saying this I am assuming he is using the word “like” in the bracketed phrase “like green and brown” to mean “such as” green and brown, not colors that are similar to green and brown, a concept that only an artist might be able to understand. In support of this claim, he references a web survey carried out among 281 adolescents (16–20 years of age) in Norway, though that survey references at least one other previous survey, which was carried out in the U.K. The Norway survey, which seemed to have investigated the reactions to yellow-colored and green-colored cigarette papers (as well as reactions to products with printed warnings) rather than green and brown, was summed up in an abstract that concluded: “This study supports earlier findings and suggest[s] that the use of unpleasant colors and warnings printed directly on cigarette sticks could increase perceived harmfulness, reduce notions of good taste and possibly reduce desires to experiment with cigarettes in adolescence.”

    The first thing that has to be said about this conclusion is that it seems rather uncertain of itself. It is less than 40 words in length, but it manages to cram in at least three doubting words: “suggest[s],” “could” and “possibly.” This is unsurprising in a way. I doubt that it would be possible to find a color that was widely dissuasive, though a certain hue of a certain color might prove to be more so. What is an unpleasant color is in the eye of the beholder and might even be the subject of fashion movements. And, of course, people, especially young people, tend to get used to things changing. Pasta that was rendered blue, a color not usually associated with food, especially savory food, would probably meet some resistance from consumers, but they, especially the young, would surely get used to it.

    In any case, if there were such a thing as colors that were unpleasant in the eyes of everyone, as the conclusion appears to suggest, it seems to me that the research carried out in Norway would be rendered pointless. It stands to reason that an unpleasant color applied to a consumer product that was previously another color would make that product less attractive, though, once again, it is likely that, over time, consumers would get used to it. Not that I think such considerations would dissuade many of the people who carry out such research. Rather, these considerations would probably be seen as a reason why scientists should, in the usual way, call for further study into this issue—further study grants to be used to make life a little more unpleasant for smokers.

    There is also the issue of what green signifies. I would imagine that if a cigarette manufacturer launched on its own initiative a green cigarette, it would be pilloried by the anti-tobacco lobby, the media and possibly other manufacturers for trying to imply that the product was environmentally friendly and, by extension, healthier. Something similar has happened before in Europe, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes such a link.

    Hypocrisy

    But the real issue is whether it is fair or, indeed, whether it makes sense to foist onto, say, a 40-year-old committed cigarette smoker in the U.K., a product variation that a web survey found made the product less attractive to a small number of adolescents in Norway. Not to mention that doing so amounts to rank hypocrisy. As above, the purpose of mandating that cigarette papers are available only in green or brown would be to make the cigarettes unattractive to smokers—that is, to ruin their enjoyment of them. Now the health evangelists might wring their hands and say they seek this only for the good of the smokers and their physical health, but they have to realize that once a smoker has made a decision to smoke, it is no business of those evangelists. Smokers are adults who are entitled, legally, to enjoy a tasteful, fragrant, satisfying and otherwise appealing product presented in attractive packaging. Goodness knows, they pay enough for this product.

    Now, let me explain what I mean by hypocrisy. Outdoor air pollution causes more deaths worldwide than tobacco smoking. It speeds up climate change and is a major cause of the biodiversity crisis, and yet we allow automobiles, which comprise one of the major causes of such pollution, to be sold in the most attractive forms imaginable. If it weren’t for hypocrisy, car design, like cigarette design, would have been heavily restricted so as to make people spurn these vehicles. Automobiles would come in a single “unattractive” background color adorned with health warnings covering everything from what happens when a pedestrian, especially a child, is hit by one to what happens to the lungs, especially young lungs, when they are hit by carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. There would be no heaters or no air conditioning in automobiles, and the seats would be made from unadorned, used tires so as to make traveling uncomfortable. There would be no tops and no windscreens so that drivers and their passengers would have to wear goggles to keep (the quickly diminishing number of) insects out of their eyes. And, right now, somewhere, a person publishing a government-commissioned review would be recommending that all automobiles be fitted with square, solid-rubber wheels—brown ones with unevenly distributed knobs on them.

    Priorities

    Quite what will be the fate of the Khan review and his call for colored cigarette papers must be in doubt. For one thing, you have to wonder if any research has been done into whether adding pigments to cigarette paper would increase the toxicity of cigarettes, whether it would impede the technologies put in place to ensure that carelessly discarded cigarettes extinguish quickly, whether it would improve the taste of cigarettes and make them more attractive, or whether it would cause any other unintended—read: ill-thought-out—consequences. My bet is that the answer to those questions is no and that the only people who would gain in the short term from such a proposal would be the scientists who would be called on to carry out such research—and the follow-up research they would recommend.

    Secondly, the review was commissioned by a government that was falling apart and that, as I write, is de facto leaderless and wallowing in internecine battles as two woefully inadequate figures fight over who should take on the mantle of further undermining the U.K.’s tottering democracy and dragging further into impoverishment the long-suffering people of these increasingly septic isles. I write increasingly septic with conviction because, while the government is concerning itself about whether cigarette paper should be green, brown, puce, tomato red (my bete noire) or whatever color the most recent health minister might find unattractive, it is allowing water companies to discharge increasing and illegal amounts of raw sewage into our rivers and coastal waters.

    Why worry about the dangers of smoking when the air around you is putrid, the water around you is a lavatory and food crops are failing in a drought because, presumably, farmers are unable to irrigate given the low level and toxic nature of the rivers? Not to mention that, largely because of the Brexit dividend, “even if the crops were to survive, there would be nobody to harvest them.”