Packaging has barely been out of the news recently for various – usually plastic-related – reasons, but in the background there is an ongoing campaign for the introduction of more ‘plain packaging’ regulations.
Last year, regulations requiring tobacco companies to sell cigarettes and rolling tobacco in plain packaging – or rather standardised packs removing all branded features and covered in graphic health warnings – were enforced in the UK.
And since then various health lobbyists and charities have been calling for similar legislation to be extended to other sectors, such as alcohol, snack foods, soft drinks and confectionery, with packaging in certain consumer markets attacked for being too glitzy or attractive.
Public Health England released a report in 2016 calling for plain packaging to be considered for alcohol while some MPs have demanded more regulation, such as health warnings written on labels.
Judith Mackay, an advisor to the World Health Organisation, meanwhile suggested last year that changing the packaging on alcohol and junk food would help to “de-normalise” excessive drinking or calorie consumption.
While such extreme measures may seem a long way off, some territories have already set the ball rolling. Yukon in Canada recently became the first place in the world to introduce sizeable health warning labels on all alcohol products, cautioning against the risk of cancer.
In a recent report, business valuation consultancy Brand Finance looked at the potential effects of the implementation of a widespread plain packaging policy on food and beverage brands. It found such measures could result in a potential loss of $293bn (£212bn) for the beverage industry globally.
Brand Finance chief executive David Haigh says: “We’re not saying plain packaging completely destroys brand values, it just dents them. This is actually consistent with the purpose of doing plain packaging – to dent the commercial capability of branded products which someone has decided are bad for you and should be deterred.
“Nobody would deny that tobacco products are bad for you and nobody would deny that alcohol products are bad for you, particularly in excess.
“But the point is, to what extent should it be a free choice whether you consume them or not, and, if you are choosing to consume them, to what extent should you be allowed to see materials that allow you to distinguish one product from another?
“In a free society, my personal view is that you should be allowed to, and that if governments think these products are that pernicious, they should either ban them completely or control their distribution.”
Plain packaging for tobacco products was introduced in Australia five years ago. Research from the University of New South Wales has found that the number of regular smokers has increased over the period since then by more than 21,000 people to 2.4 million.
Added to this, the volume of illicit tobacco in Australia has reportedly grown in the same period and now represents around 14% of all tobacco consumed. Some packaging and tobacco industry analysts feel that plain packaging is partly to blame as it is easier to replicate.
Smuggling is another possible issue, warns Haigh. “Where there is demand, people will try and fulfil it, and where an essential ingredient of some of these products – such as the image – is removed, people want to get it from somewhere else. So they either get a counterfeit product or a smuggled import, but either way the government loses out.”
Retailers would feel the effects of extended plain packaging regulations strongly, as such measures would harm the consumer shopping experience, says BPIF Cartons general manager Jon Clark.
“Premium drinks are all sold on the brand and the experience. People give bottles of spirits as gifts and they would not want to give a plain bottle with a white label.
“Life is also becoming more about experiences, and if everything was packaged in a brown paper bag, for example, it would make shopping very boring.”
The effect on print of the tobacco plain packaging regulations was substantial, with the UK’s last two tobacco packaging manufacturers – Amcor in Bristol and MPS in Bradford – closing in 2016.
More plain packaging regulations would clearly also impact packaging printers, particularly those that offer special finishes or other added-value services to clients, but the creative industries would likely take a much bigger hit.
“Packaging is a service industry – we just do what we’re asked to do,” says Packaging Federation chief executive Dick Searle. “We may be creative in coming up with new ways of doing it but we don’t decide what goes on packs.”
Searle argues it would be much harder to enforce plain packaging on soft drinks, for example, than tobacco.
“There’s no question that tobacco kills, and the health impacts of smoking are well known but – more importantly – it’s addictive, it is a drug. Soft drinks aren’t addictive, that is all about consumer choice and the way in which people live.
“Brands are so powerful that I can’t see the Coca-Colas of this world turning around and accepting plain packaging, they’ll go back and just argue the facts.”
Alternative measures, such as clearer written health guidelines or warnings on food and drink packaging, are perhaps more likely to be introduced at this stage.
Measures such as the upcoming sugar tax on soft drinks are also aimed at addressing similar issues, and it is quite possible that higher taxes, or minimum unit pricing, for alcohol might be brought in at some point – with the latter already set to be introduced in Scotland in May.
For now, at least, the extension of plain packaging regulations appears to be more of a potential threat than an impending reality.
It would hit brands and it hasn’t been shown to work
Mike Ridgway, director, Consumer Packaging Manufacturers Alliance
Plain packaging is of great concern to brand values. If restrictions on alcohol, certain snack foods, chocolate and confectionery products proliferate in similar fashion around the world to the experience of the tobacco sector, there would be obvious reductions in brand values.
The adverse effect on print and packaging must not be underestimated.
Packaging for alcohol products is primarily secondary packaging used for gifting and marketing purposes, as well as supporting the brand. These products are marketed internationally in shopping malls, airports and travel locations where branding is of crucial importance and where restrictions would be extremely detrimental.
Packaging has not had the anticipated influence expected on smoking levels where plain packaging has been introduced and in Australia, where it has been for five years, there has been a complete failure of this policy to meet its original objectives.
RMIT University of Melbourne has released a report entitled The Failure of Plain Packaging: Australian Evidence, which states “the number of smokers in Australia has increased for the first time since anti-smoking campaigns ramped up a generation ago”.
The illicit tobacco trade is also of growing concern, with the first counterfeit cigarette packs now found in London that were copies of plain packs. The argument has always been that once complexity is taken out of the packaging specification, and more importantly the sophisticated production features supporting the logo, pack features, and brand names are replaced by simple four- or six-colour printing, it is open season for the counterfeiter – and so it has proved to be.
Is there an aspect that would make governments review this? I believe it could be the effect of the illicit trade on legitimate businesses, the honest retailers, the losses of revenue, and the overall threat to the intellectual property of internationally renowned branded consumer products.
How would more plain packaging regs impact the industry?
Jacky Sidebottom, sales director, Glossop Cartons
“Since the beginning of Glossop Cartons, plain cartons have been part of our business. However, if the widespread implementation of plain packaging became the absolute standard for the industry, it would have a huge impact on every print-related business. Print, pre-press, print machine sales and engineers could find themselves without a role and I imagine a high level of unemployment would sweep the industry. There is a bigger job at hand to educate society better on nutrition and lifestyle choices. We need to make packaging clearer, not hide it.”
Claire Summersby, marketing manager, Alexir Partnership
“Packaging protects the product through the supply chain, but it also plays a vital role in communicating the brand story as well as giving a canvas to communicate the necessary legalities, nutrition and ingredients, recycling advice and recipe ideas. If you take away all this information, how is the consumer able to make an informed decision on the product? The government has been working to educate on the dangers of excessive junk food consumption. We must work alongside the government, schools and businesses to make sure the messages are getting through.”
Haulwen Nicholas, founder, The Packaging Oracle
“Food packaging is always going to need print on it for nutritional and legal information. For instance, the traffic light system still requires a four-colour process to print. Possibly this presents an opportunity for the industry to find other ways of making packaging appealing, and could lead to fresh innovation. I understand why it was done with cigarettes, but with food I think many people buy on price rather than packaging so it is unlikely to influence their decision. This issue is bigger than packaging; we should start by educating families how to produce healthy, affordable meals.”