WASHINGTON - The best way to get people to stop buying cigarettes might be to sell them in indistinguishable boxes.
France is on the verge of introducing some of the most stringent anti-smoking legislation in the world. As part of a new proposal, which was first announced last week, tobacco companies will be forced to sell their cigarette sticks in plain, neutral packaging in the country, or, as it was explained by French health minister Marisol Touraine, boxes of "the same shape, same size, same color, same typeset."
Australia, which has mandated that cigarettes be sold in dark olive, logo-free boxes since 2012, is the only country thus far to have enforced entirely neutral cigarette packaging. If the new French plan, which is expected to be part of a sweeping health bill, passes through Parliament this autumn, France will become the second. But there's good reason to believe many others might follow.
To begin with, Australia's foray into the world of plain, virtually indistinguishable cigarette boxes has been fairly successful. Shortly after the new law was implemented, calls to Quitline, a helpline for those looking to quit smoking, spiked by nearly 80 percent. None of the tobacco industry's warnings about the potential for increases in purchases of illicit, unbranded tobacco have proven clairvoyant - the proportion of smokers purchasing such types of tobacco is actually decreasing, according to a study conducted last month. And while some have pointed to upticks in cigarette sales as evidence that the legislation hasn't, in fact, worked, last year's increase - which came in at 0.3 percent - is likely an outlier (it was the first in more than five years). Also last year, there was a much more substantial decrease in the actual number of people smoking in the country. The number of people who smoke fell by 3 percent last year, dropping the smoking rate in Australia to well below 15 percent.
But Australia's success is hardly the only reason why unbranded cigarette packages could spread.
A deluge of research nods to the power of neutral packs. A 2008 study found that the fewer design elements a cigarette packaged contained, the less desirable it was for smokers, and concluded that "tobacco control policies should aim to remove as many brand design elements as possible." A study conducted in 2013 reached a similar conclusion - namely that plain packaging leads to lower smoking appeal, greater support for anti-smoking policy and a heightened urgency for smokers to quit. And there are scores more: A 2012 report which analyzed 28 separate studies noted that in every one plain packaging made cigarettes less attractive, seemingly of lower quality and, ultimately, less desirable as a smoking identity.
Despite decades of declines in smoking rates, tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable death around the globe. Tobacco use leads to more than 5 million deaths each year, a toll expected to climb to more than 8 million by 2030, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Much of the developing world is to blame for the dire forecast - in China, for instance, 47 percent of the population smoked in 2011, according to estimates by the World Bank. But even in the United States, where only 13 percent of the population smokes, tobacco still kills nearly 500,000 people every year.
The French are particularly ripe for cutting back on their lethal smoking habits. Smoking causes more than 200 deaths each day in the country, according to Touraine. An estimated 30 percent of France's population smoked as of 2010, according to the French Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction. The goal, Touraine said last week, is to reduce that number to fewer than 20 percent over the coming decade.
"I have chosen my side, that of public health," Tourraine said in a presentation on Thursday. "This is an important moment in the fight against tobacco."
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It's a lofty aspiration, cutting cigarette use that dramatically and that quickly. Especially considering that the smoking rate in France has actually risen in recent years - by two percentage points since 2005 - and that other measures implemented across the entirety of the European Union, including taxes and graphic warning labels that cover nearly two-thirds of packages, haven't managed to significantly stem cigarette use.
But if France passes the proposal into law this fall, and Australia's success with neutral packaging is any indication of how smoking rates will respond, a 10 percent reduction in cigarette use by 2025 might not be out of reach. It might also lead to a domino effect, in which other countries that are considering similar legislation - including the United Kingdom and New Zealand - are inspired to move toward implementing them, as well.