Europeans are insatiable smokers, but not without dissuasion. New regulations adopted by the European Union’s 15 member nations require tobacco companies to cover 30 percent of the front of a cigarette pack and 40 percent of the back with one of four official warnings: “Smoking seriously harms you and others around you,” “Smokers die younger,” “Smoking causes ageing of the skin,” and the matter-of-fact “Smoking kills.” Translated into a flavorful assortment of languages, the warnings appear in stark bold type against a white background. The point-of-sale attack on smoking is transcontinental. Canadian health ministers decided that threatening words weren’t deterrent enough. Since 2001, cigarettes sold in Canada have had to bear one of several full-color graphic depictions of cancer’s effects on the mouth, lungs, heart, and brain. According to a study by the Canadian Cancer Society, 58 percent of respondents said that these unsightly visuals had given them pause before lighting up.
from left to right Noblesse from Israel (warning: “The ministry of health states that smoking causes serious diseases”); Silk Cut and Dunhill from England; John Silver from Sweden (warning: “Smoking seriously harms you and those around you”); Nobel from Spain (warning: “Smoking can kill”); Du Maurier from Canada (warning: “Cigarettes cause mouth diseases”); Hope from Japan (warning: “Please take care to avoid excessive smoking since it could damage your health”); Caballero from Holland (warning: “Your doctor or pharmacy can help you stop smoking “).
Some health-risk-defying puffers are annoyed by these tactics. The British website Fakefags (www.fakefags.co.uk) sells stickers to cover the macabre messages on standard U.K. packs. The labels mimic the original warnings in looks but not in sentiment. “Social smoking doesn’t count,” they snarkily observe, and “You’ve got to die of something.” Customers are also invited to submit their own messages to blanket the wet-blanket advertising.
Across France, meanwhile, a million defiant smokers (or thereabouts according to Le Monde) have slipped on the Crazypack, a sleeve that conceals warnings on cigarette boxes. Of the eight Crazypacks available, one features a portrait of Che Guevara and another a decorative checkerboard. In Spain, government-licensed tobacco shops sell similar message-concealing cases. Some look like ordinary Marlboro or Ducados packs, but without the doomsday warning.
The supply side couldn’t agree more that the new warnings are an infringement-if not on personal freedom, then on branding opportunities. With a worldwide ban on television cigarette ads and an extension of the EU prohibition to radio, print media, and the Internet by July 2005, tobacco brand managers will have to come up with new promotional strategies to wheedle cigarettes into the hearts (and lungs) of customers.
Ruth Altchek is associate editor of I.D..