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SFU prof’s plain packaging project aims to kick cigarettes’ butts

Dr. Kelley Lee’s collection of cigarette packages from around the world illustrates corporate marketing techniques

Students can check out the display to see how different countries stack up.
Students can check out the display to see how different countries stack up.
Image Credits: Alexa Tarrayo

If you’ve walked down Blusson Hall recently, you may have noticed a display case featuring gruesome images of what cigarettes can do to your body, and a world map with cigarette packages from around the globe pinned to their respective countries.

These were collected by SFU health sciences professor, Dr. Kelley Lee. With World No Tobacco Day’s  global plain packaging campaign on May 31, Dr. Lee has been drawing attention to the issue locally.

“My research is around tobacco control in general, and plain packaging is one aspect of it,” she stated. The movement aims to streamline and standardize all cigarette design and marketing. Currently, about 75 percent of a cigarette package is dedicated to a graphic health warning, which still leaves some room for cigarette brands to appeal to smokers.

“Companies really find that the packaging is important to them to get their branding across,” she said. “They call them ‘mini-billboards.’ So they put a lot of emphasis on them — they spend millions of dollars designing these packages to appeal to particular targets; to young women and to young people.”

Dr. Lee first started collecting cigarette packages from around the world to use as teaching tools, some of which used hearts within the filters, candy-like flavours, pretty colours, and novelty images to entice consumers.

When asked why she believes tobacco should be treated differently by the government than other legal harmful substances, Dr. Lee stated “you can’t smoke a cigarette safely.

“Tobacco is the only legal substance that, if used as directed, will kill half of its users. You can’t say that about alcohol, and you can’t say that about unhealthy foods. It’s a substance that if you invented it today, it would not be legalized.”

An issue Dr. Lee is tackling closer to home is updating SFU’s smoking policy. The Advertising, Selling, or Smoking of Tobacco on Campus policy has not been updated since 2009. It currently states that students can smoke 10 metres away from university buildings, but Dr. Lee wishes to implement an update which would limit smoking to designated areas.

“We surveyed students, faculty, staff, community members, and 75 percent of people agreed that was the way we should do it because of the forest fires, because of cigarette butts everywhere, because of secondhand smoke wafting into people’s offices and workplaces,” she said.

As for the broader context of Dr. Lee’s anti-smoking efforts, she believes that Canada is doing fairly well with cigarette packaging regulations. However, there is definitely room for improvement.

Canada is now considering adopting a completely plain and standardized packaging policy.  “The Liberal government said they would have a three-month consultation. That means that people — you and me, anybody — can submit about whether this is a good or bad policy.”

This, however, means that tobacco companies will have ample opportunity to oppose the motion, and could potentially spread some misleading information. “Our research has also been looking into how they’ve been using third parties like think tanks to fund research that sounds independent,” said Dr. Lee.

Not everyone believes that plain packaging is the best way to disincentivize smokers. According to associate dean of the faculty of development and research at the Beedie School of Business, Dr. Judy Zaichkowsky, “fooling with the packages is a side-issue, almost. It’s not the core of the motivation to start. The core of the motivation to start is to be older; more mature, to belong.”

Both women touched on the significant correlation between puberty and starting to smoke. Dr. Zaichkowsky described it as a time when “you do everything you can to look and feel more mature.” Dr. Lee outlined 13 as the average age at which people start smoking, and the demographic to whom tobacco companies aim to advertise.

“It’s a dirty business,” she stated.

Dr. Zaichkowsky believes that though the plain packaging movement is well-intentioned, using fear tactics such as jarring imagery on packages is the wrong method. “When the fear gets too ugly or gruesome, people look away. They tune it out. [. . .] They understand it, but they don’t want to pay it any attention.”

Instead, she believes that “a moderate, social fear appeal is much more effective than ‘smoking will kill you,’ because that’s too fearful. People will say, ‘not me.’”

NOTE: Dr. Kelley Lee’s display has been moved to the casing across from the Djavad Mowafaghian Lecture Theatre.

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