France thinks plain cigarette packs will help kick its smoking habit

A new law will strip cigarette packs of all their branding, and tobacco companies aren't very happy about it

Few countries are as synonymous with smoking as France, where cigarettes like Gauloises and Gitanes are as much a part of the cultural fabric as croissants and labor strikes. But cigarettes sold in the country will have a different face very soon, thanks to a new law that will strip them of all their branding.

Last week, the French Health Ministry announced that all tobacco shops will have to sell cigarettes in plain, logo-free packaging by the end of this year, under a law that was passed at the end of 2015. The brand of each company will be displayed in small, uniform typeface on all packs, which will be manufactured in the same shade of dark green. (Graphic health warnings will be larger, as well.) When the law goes into effect, France will become the second country to mandate neutral cigarette packaging after Australia, which passed similar legislation in 2012, and the UK and Ireland will soon follow suit.

The goal, according to the French health ministry, is to reduce smoking rates by 10 percent over the next five years, and to deter young people from picking up the habit in the first place. France has among the highest smoking rates in Europe — 32 percent of men and 26 percent of women, according to the World Health Organization — and smoking remains the leading cause of death in the country. Around a third of French teenagers smoke tobacco, and a 2015 study found that rates have only increased in recent years.

french neutral cigarette packs

This graphic, distributed by the French Health Ministry, explains that health warnings will be more "shocking," comprising 65 percent of each neutral pack.

"We can't accept that tobacco kills 73,000 people every year in our country — the equivalent of a plane crash every day with 200 people on board," Health Minister Marisol Touraine said after proposing the legislation in 2014.

It’s difficult to quantify the effect that plain packaging has on consumer behavior, though studies have shown that it likely acts as a deterrent. A series of papers published in the journal Addiction found that the neutral packs led to a decline in smoking at outdoor restaurants, cafes, and bars in Australia, while others have shown that they make cigarettes seem less appealing to adolescents. Australia’s Public Health Association last month described its plain packaging legislation as a "remarkable success," and although the regulation has coincided with tax increases and a broad awareness campaign, researchers say it’s clear that the law has played a role in lowering smoking rates.

"the evidence would suggest that it’s working."

"You’ve got multiple key indicators that point to tobacco control as being a success in Australia," says Crawford Moodie, a senior research fellow in social marketing at the University of Stirling who has published several papers on neutral cigarette packaging. "While it's difficult to extricate the precise role that plain packaging makes, the evidence would suggest that it’s working."

The tobacco industry is of course unhappy about the push for neutral packaging, arguing that the regulations infringe on their intellectual property and will lead to more widespread counterfeiting. Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which owns brands like Camel and Winston, is challenging the French law in court, while Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco have sued the British government over its legislation. Tobacco companies have filed lawsuits to overturn Australia’s plain packaging requirement as well, though courts have so far ruled in the government’s favor.

cigarette ads side by side

A 1931 advertisement for the French cigarette brand Gitanes (left) and a 1990 ad for Boule d'Or (right). (Stanford School of Medicine)

Tobacconists in France are also upset about the legislation — some staged protests across the country last summer — and packaging companies say the change will hurt their bottom line.

"What you’re doing by moving to standardized packaging is you’re taking away all the opportunities away from the packaging industry, and that can have a serious effect on it," says Mike Ridgway, director of the Consumer Packaging Manufacturers Alliance, a UK-based trade group. Ridgway, who spent four decades working in packaging for tobacco, alcohol, and other products, says branded cigarette packs have long acted as a deterrent to counterfeiting. Without them, he believes the black market will thrive.

"If you’re a purist tobacco control advocate, you’d want to see the end of the tobacco industry," he says, "and plain packaging is only a step toward that."

Tobacco companies have faced increasingly tight restrictions on branding in recent decades, with some or all forms of advertising banned in many countries. Their logos have also had to compete with ever-larger health warnings on cigarette packs, forcing some to develop more creative packaging. Benson and Hedges has created a side-opening pack that has allowed it to minimize the health warnings, while brands like Vogue have long used slim "lipstick" packs to the same effect.

For David Hammond, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s school of public health, packaging bans "are just an extension" of previous regulations on advertising, "and in some ways they’re even more important, because the industry describes the pack as the absolute cornerstone of their brand imagery." Hammond points to lipstick packs as an example of gender-specific marketing; their thin casing reinforces the idea that smoking will help keep weight off, and many are packaged in pink or fluorescent hues.

cigarette warning

A concept design for cigarettes with health warnings printed on them. (Crawford Moodie)

Hammond says he doesn’t expect plain packaging rules to completely end cigarette branding; tobacco companies will still be able to differentiate their products with slim cigarettes or capsule filters that release flavors like spearmint or cherry. And they’ll still be able to choose gender-targeted names like Vogue or Corset. Moodie thinks that without packaging real estate, tobacco companies will begin branding the cigarette itself. He’s already sought to preempt them with a prototype cigarette that has a health warning printed on it.

Marketing experts say that neutral packaging will dramatically alter the social dynamics that have crystallized around cigarette smoking. "Cigarette packaging for a long time was really a badge — it showed what tribe you belonged to," says Debbie Millman, chair of the brand marketing program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and chief marketing officer at the design firm Sterling Brands. "Carrying a certain pack had a similar type of cachet that sneakers or smartphones have today."

Millman points to the Lucky Strike packaging as particularly iconic, with its trademark bullseye logo that was created by the celebrated designer Raymond Loewy. Marlboro’s red-and-white flip-top packaging, created by Frank Gianninoto, is one of the world’s most recognizable brand designs — one that bore what the writer Thomas Hine described as the "stripped-down, one-size-fits-all quality characteristic of the most enduring American designs."

gauloises marlboro

The Marlboro package, designed by Frank Giannininoto, is widely regarded as one of the most recognizable in the world. Marcel Jacno's Gauloise design relied heavily on patriotic iconography. (Claudio Toledo / Flickr; Wikimedia Commons)

Gauloises is arguably the most recognizable of French cigarette brands (it’s now owned by Imperial Tobacco, a British company), and it has long relied on patriotic imagery. Its light blue packaging, designed by Marcel Jacno in the 1930s, featured a winged French military helmet, and the company’s slogan was "Liberté toujours" ("Freedom forever"). The cigarettes were included in soldiers’ rations during World War II, and over time they came to be associated with the famous French intellectuals and artists who smoked them, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Serge Gainsbourg.

That iconography will vanish as the French law comes into force in the coming months, and Parisian tabacs will certainly be less vibrant as a result. But some say there’s no reason to mourn the loss.

"There’s no question that from an art perspective, there’s been some remarkable art created over the years," says David Berman, a branding and design strategist, and author of the book Do Good Design. But those designs, he adds, "don’t have to be in the public space, they don’t have to be in our billboards and our stores, and they certainly don’t have to be in the hands of our children."

The best of Verge Video