Plain packs and health warnings

Plain packs and health warnings

Plain packs, prominent health warnings, and now even a colour called opaque couche – but why don’t all of these anti-smoking measures make more people stop?


From May 2017 the law in the UK changed.  From now on all cigarettes will not just be in plain packs with health warnings, but the packs will be in a specially chosen colour called opaque couche.

The colour was chosen after three months of research amongst consumers to find the least attractive and most off-putting colour.  An ugly shade of brown, it was chosen for its links with dirt, tar, and decay, and its complete lack of positive associations.

Although rates of smoking are falling, this is more due to less people starting the habit than it is to people quitting.  For non-smokers this can be confusing – why, they ask, do people continue to smoke when they know it’s bad for them, and in the face of such off-putting measures?

The problem with that question is it just looks at smoking.  If non-smokers asked themselves why they might eat unhealthily, exceed speed limits, or make other poor choices then they would be better able to understand.  The fact is that people continue to smoke for two reasons – cognitive dissonance and secondary gains.

Cognitive dissonance is the ability we all have to hold two contrary ideas, but be able to believe each one individually.  That’s why people can be fully aware of the health risks and still smoke – because they genuinely believe that they will be okay.  So compelling is that mindset that as the number of people they know with smoking related problems increases so they see that as evidence that they themselves are less likely to suffer from them.  It’s the same perverse reasoning that sees them give much more weight to the inevitable relative who smoked until they were 93, and never knew a day’s illness.

Secondary gains are the benefits that people see in habits that they know are bad for them.  They then use these benefits, real or imagined,  to justify continuing the habit.  Smokers might claim that it keeps their weight down, or that smoking breaks keep them in the loop at work.  Whatever the benefits are, unless people are satisfied that they can get them without smoking they will not be able to stop.  That’s because we’re all averse to suffering a potential loss, even when it’s outweighed by potential gains.

Ultimately the reason why health warnings don’t work as people think they will is because the decision to continue isn’t a rational one, but an emotional one.  Appeals to reason don’t work with emotional decisions, and that’s why the emotional reactions to ‘opaque couche’ might work where health warnings haven’t.

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