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Is blue the new green? Repackaging menthol cigarettes in response to a flavour ban in Ontario, Canada
  1. Tracey Borland1,
  2. Sandra A D’Souza1,
  3. Shawn O’Connor1,
  4. Michael Oliver Chaiton1,
  5. Robert Schwartz1,2
  1. 1 Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  2. 2 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Tracey Borland, Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, c/o Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto ON M5T 3M7, Canada; tracey.borland{at}camh.ca

Abstract

Background As of 1 January 2017, the Canadian province of Ontario banned the distribution and sale of menthol tobacco products. There is limited knowledge about how tobacco companies will adapt their packaging in response to a menthol ban.

Methods We conducted a content analysis of preban traditional menthol (no capsule) and menthol capsule cigarette packs and their postban replacements. Preban and postban packs were matched using tobacco company descriptions of replacement brands in business-to-business marketing materials, advertising on cigarette pack cellophane and a tobacco company website.

Results A total of 63 menthol (n=30) and ‘non-menthol alternative’ (n=33) cigarette packs were included in the analysis. Approximately half of the preban packs were menthol capsule cigarettes and half traditional menthol cigarettes. While some postban brands continued to convey menthol-like qualities via the colour and/or brand descriptor ‘green’, ’blue' was the most common colour and brand descriptor postban. Packs shifted from using ‘menthol’ and/or ‘fresh’ as taste descriptor preban to using ‘smooth’ postban; some postban packs had ‘non-menthol alternative’ or ‘without menthol/capsules’ written on their cellophane. The presence of innovative filter technologies continued in the postban samples.

Conclusion Results suggest that tobacco companies attempted to maintain menthol smokers in Ontario by aggressive preban promotion of menthol capsule cigarettes, continued promotion of innovative filter technologies and by directing smokers to non-menthol alternatives whose packaging both in text and in colour connoted menthol-like qualities (eg, green) and reduced harshness or harm (eg, blue, white, silver, smooth taste).

  • advertising and promotion
  • packaging and labelling
  • tobacco industry
  • public policy

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Introduction

As of 1 January 2017, the sale and distribution of menthol-flavoured tobacco products is no longer permitted in Ontario, Canada. Ontario’s menthol ban is part of a general ban on flavoured tobacco products (implemented 1 January 2016) and covers tobacco products containing flavouring agents, including those imparting a flavour or aroma of menthol. Specifically, tobacco products cannot contain menthol nor be represented as being menthol flavoured by advertisement or otherwise including packaging. The ban includes flavouring agents that are contained in any of the component parts of a tobacco product, such as capsules in a cigarette filter.1 While the global popularity of flavour capsule cigarettes has grown since 2007,2 they were only introduced to the Canadian market in late 2015.3 As per tobacco company business-to-business marketing materials, menthol capsule cigarettes were introduced to help adult menthol smokers transition into non-menthol cigarettes (online supplementary figure S1). However, a growing body of research demonstrates that flavoured capsule products are designed to appeal to younger demographics4–6 and that youth and young adults find them more appealing than other age groups2 5 7 In 2016, 6.7% of cigarette sales in Ontario were menthol.8 Preban, approximately 25% of Ontario high school youth who smoked reported past 30-day menthol cigarette use.9

In jurisdictions with comprehensive tobacco marketing bans—such as in Ontario—there is increased importance placed on the cigarette pack as a branding and marketing tool.10 Historically, tobacco companies have circumvented regulation by adapting cigarette packaging design elements. In response to the ban on the use of light and mild descriptors, companies used colours and substitute descriptors to connote relative strength and therefore reduced health risk.11 12 More recently, a study of Alberta’s and Nova Scotia’s menthol bans noted in Alberta, menthol products were immediately repackaged to connote ‘menthol-like flavourings’ via the colour green and alternative descriptors such as ‘smooth’ and ‘green’.13

This study examines how tobacco companies adapted cigarette packaging elements in response to Ontario’s menthol ban, for both traditional menthol (no capsule) and menthol capsule cigarettes. Understanding how tobacco companies respond to a menthol ban might help inform policy development and implementation in jurisdictions preparing similar bans.

Methods

Data collection occurred in October/November 2016 (preban) and mid-February 2017 (postban). One postban pack was collected in September 2017. Preban, two researchers visited eight retail outlets (three chain, three independent and two gas stations) in six Toronto, Ontario neighbourhoods and purchased each type of menthol, capsule and green-coloured or green-labelled cigarette pack available. Preban purchases were guided by a Health Canada list of menthol cigarettes sold in Ontario. Stores were randomly sampled from an administrative list stratified by a neighbourhood material deprivation index to include two low, two moderate and two high-income neighbourhoods. Postban, the researchers revisited six of the preban retail outlets and asked to purchase all menthol/capsule replacement packs, capsules and/or green-coloured or green-labelled packs. Researchers purchased one of each cigarette brand line extension in stock at the largest retail outlet to maximise postban coverage. Overall, 47 preban and 258 postban packs were purchased.

Menthol packs were matched with their recommended ‘non-menthol alternative’ packs as claimed by statements in business-to-business marketing materials from the three major Canadian tobacco companies (Imperial Tobacco Canada, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges and JTI-Macdonald Corp (JTI-MC) (online supplementary figure S2). Non-menthol alternatives included new but mostly pre-existing cigarette products promoted as the companies’ best replacements for menthol products (including competitor products). The majority of preban and postban packs in the business-to-business materials were collected (n=55, 83.3%). Packs were also included in the analysis if they were identified as a non-menthol alternative via their cellophane or on Imperial’s online consumer portal. Overall, 63 unique menthol (n=30) and non-menthol alternative (n=33) cigarette packs were included in the analysis. Half of the preban packs were traditional menthol cigarettes (n=16, 53.3%) and half menthol capsule cigarettes (n=14, 46.7%). The postban sample consisted of 23 traditional menthol replacement packs and 14 capsule replacements.

Content analysis: coding and analysis

A content analysis of preban (menthol) and postban (non-menthol alternative) cigarette packaging elements was conducted using a coding framework based on existing frameworks.13 14 Captured data included visual (prominent and secondary colours, imagery), textual and physical design elements observed both on and inside the pack (including cellophane, cigarette stick). Prominent colours were those that covered more than 50% of a pack or a filter tip’s exterior surfaces (as per the coders’ general observation). Two colours were considered prominent if they each covered at least 45% of the surface. Secondary colours were those not considered prominent. Price, cigarette size, filter type (eg, capsule, charcoal, flow) and presence of filter ventilation holes were also recorded.

All preban and postban packs were coded sequentially, with data entered into the Research Electronic Data Capture (REDCap) tool.15 Two researchers independently coded all preban packs. The average intercoder agreement across the 42 coding categories was 92%. Per cent agreement for specific categories included 82% (primary pack colour), 46%i (secondary pack colours), 89% (foil colour), 79% (secondary filter tip colour), 86% (ventilation hole presence), 100% (filter type, prominent filter colour, taste descriptor, price). Discrepancies were resolved by a third researcher. Coding of the postban packs was split randomly between the two researchers. Descriptive statistics were calculated in REDCap. Preban and postban comparisons of packaging design elements (eg, colours, descriptors) and price were conducted for the (1) traditional menthol sample (2) menthol capsule sample (3) traditional versus capsule samples. Significance levels were calculated using t-tests (price) and χ2 tests (design elements) in MedCalc V.18.5.

Results

Traditional menthol brands

The proportion of packs with green as a prominent pack colour declined in the postban sample (pre: 87.5% vs post: 17.4%; p≤0.001), whereas the proportion with blue as a prominent colour increased (pre: 6.3% vs post: 43.5%; p=0.012) (table 1). Similarly, postban secondary filter tip colours were less likely to be green (pre: 93.8% vs post: 13%; p≤0.001) and more likely to be blue (pre: 6.3% vs post: 47.8%, p=0.006). Postban brands were more likely to have a colour descriptor as part of their variant name (pre: 6.3% vs post: 52.2%, p=0.003), with blue being the most common descriptor. ‘Menthol’ was not observed on postban packs, however, it was found on the cellophane of four (12.1%) packs, labelling them as non-menthol alternatives (‘Smooth taste redesigned without menthol’). Postban brands were also more likely to have ‘Smooth’ as a taste descriptor (pre: 6.3% vs post: 56.5%, p=0.002). The majority of postban products continued to have traditional filters, however, five (21.7%) had a unique filter (Firm, duPlus, Charcoal and Aqua Filter). ‘Odour Reduction Technology’ was advertised on some pre and postban packs (figure 1).

Table 1

Cigarette packaging design elements: traditional menthol and menthol capsule cigarette brands, preban and postban

Figure 1

Preban traditional menthol packs (Next Menthol, Benson & Hedges deLuxe Menthol, LD Super Kings Menthol) and postban non-menthol alternatives (Next Green, Benson & Hedges Unison, LD Super Kings Blue).

Menthol capsule brands

All preban and a majority of postban packs (n=11, 78.6%) had blue as either a prominent or secondary pack colour. Only one (7.1%) preban pack had green as a prominent colour; green was not identified on any postban packs. Blue and silver continued to be the most common secondary filter tip colours postban; while four (28.5%) preban filter tips had green as a secondary colour, green was not observed postban. Consistent with traditional menthol findings, postban brands were more likely to have colour descriptors as part of their variant name (pre: 7.1% vs post: 64.3%, p=0.002), with blue the most common.

All preban packs featured the term ‘menthol’ and text that conveyed freshness and ‘choice’. Many packs featured imagery to emphasise the taste/sensation of the menthol capsule and/or associate futuristic/high-tech qualities with the product (eg, exploding star/planet, power-switch icon). Postban, neither ‘menthol’ nor ‘capsule/convertible’ was observed on packs, with the exception of three products identified as non-capsule alternatives via their cellophane (‘Your Pall Mall. Now without convertibles’). Similarly, descriptors highlighting freshness or cooling sensation were not observed on postban packs; only one pack highlighted the consumer’s ‘choice’ to change the cigarette’s taste. Seven packs (50%) referenced a unique filter (Charcoal, duPlus, Flow, Adjustable, Aqua). JTI-MC was the only company to offer a postban capsule product—Camel North Aqua Filter—in which the capsule appears to contain water or a saline solution. Some postban packs continued to feature imagery of technology and others featured imagery that evoked water (figure 2).

Figure 2

Preban menthol capsule packs (Next Snap, John Player Charge, Pall Mall Menthol Convertibles) and postban non-menthol alternatives (Next Duo, John Player Choice, Pall Mall Blue).

Traditional menthol versus menthol capsule brands

Preban and postban menthol capsule packs were on average cheaper than preban and postban traditional menthol packs (pre: $8.88 vs $10.59, p=0.003; post: 8.72 vs $10.07, p=0.012). While, preban traditional menthol packs were more likely to be green (87.5% vs 7.1%, p≤0.001) and have green on their filter tips (93.5% vs 28.5%, p≤0.001), preban capsule packs were more likely to be blue (42.8% vs 6.3%, p=0.020) or black (35.7 vs 6.3%, p=0.05) and have blue (92.8% vs 6.3%, p≤0.001) and/or silver on their filter tips (92.8% vs 43.8%, p=0.005). In both samples, the majority of postban packs and secondary filter tip colours were blue and blue/silver, respectively.

Discussion

This study examined the complex menthol brand replacements instituted by tobacco companies in Ontario, Canada after a province-wide ban on flavours, including menthol, in tobacco products. Consistent with experiences in other jurisdictions with menthol bans,13 menthol descriptors were removed from all replacement packs except for a few that had ‘non-menthol alternative’ or ‘without menthol/capsules’ written on their cellophane. In contrast to Alberta, only a few of Ontario’s traditional menthol replacements were relabelled ‘green’ and continued to have green as a prominent colour. Ontario’s postban packs were more likely to feature blue as a prominent colour and variant name; white and silver were also common postban colours. Menthol cigarette packaging was previously most commonly green, connoting menthol flavour, sensory qualities associated with reduced harshness (cooling, numbing, refreshing) and health protection.16 17 In an attempt to maintain menthol smokers, tobacco companies might be replacing menthol and capsule products with alternatives that also communicate reduced harshness and reduced harm, in particular via packaging and filter tip colours and text descriptors (eg, blue, white, silver, smooth)14 17 18 and unique filter references.14 19 20

Another unique finding was the emergence of new menthol products on the market prior to Ontario’s ban. Unlike traditional menthol packs, preban capsule packs were prominently blue, potentially priming consumers for the ‘non-menthol alternative’ market to follow. Moreover, the price of capsule packs was on average cheaper than traditional menthol packs, possibly increasing their attractiveness to menthol consumers transitioning onto regular cigarettes but also to youth and young adults.7 As found elsewhere,4 6 preban capsule packs were designed in a way that suggests they were targeted to young people (dynamic imagery, innovation and individuality connotations).

With the strengthening of product and packaging regulations in many jurisdictions (eg, product standardisation, plain and standardised packaging), tobacco companies have increasingly focused on cigarette filters to communicate brand and product information (eg, taste, strength, innovation), to customise smoking experiences and differentiate their products.21 22 Similarly, while Ontario’s menthol ban eliminated menthol capsule cigarettes from the market, filter technologies persisted and emerged in the postban capsule and traditional menthol samples. Indeed, the importance of filter technologies as a way to compensate menthol smokers for the loss of menthol cigarettes was emphasised on Imperial’s online consumer portal—Zyne.ca—(‘Pall Mall is committed to the best quality and value available in non-menthol cigarettes, and will be introducing innovative filters to the Pall Mall family’).23

A potential limitation of this study is that the sample was missing select packs listed on the tobacco companies’ marketing materials. However, the number of missing packs was minimal (8 of 36 preban and 2 of 30 postban). It is likely that tobacco companies began adapting in preparation for the ban, either rebranding or removing products from the market by the time of our preban data collection. A second limitation is that postban packs were not double coded. While per cent agreement was high for the majority of preban categories, reliability of postban pack characterisation is not certain. Nevertheless, this study suggests that tobacco companies attempted to maintain menthol smokers in Ontario by promoting menthol capsule cigarettes as a way to transition into non-menthol cigarettes, continuing to offer innovative filter technologies, and directing smokers to non-menthol alternatives whose packaging and filter tips also communicate reduced harshness and harm. Future studies should continue to monitor how tobacco companies respond to menthol bans and explore how consumers perceive non-menthol alternative products, including whether or not consumers associate these products with flavours. Finally, this study underscores the importance of plain and standardised packaging (including regulation of cellophane and cigarette filters) as a means to limit tobacco companies’ ability to circumvent regulation and associate reduced harm and lifestyle qualities with products.

What this paper adds

  • There is limited knowledge about how tobacco companies will adapt their products and packaging in response to a menthol ban.

  • In Ontario, tobacco companies developed a menthol replacement system of non-menthol alternative packaging and branding and promoted these alternatives to tobacco vendors and menthol consumers.

  • Tobacco companies attempted to maintain menthol smokers by promoting capsule cigarettes as a way to transition onto non-menthol cigarettes; continuing to offer innovative filter technologies postban; and recommending non-menthol alternatives that communicated menthol-like qualities and/or reduced harshness and reduced harm (eg, green, blue, white, silver, smooth taste).

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Lori Diemert, who was involved in the initial stages of data collection and Teresa DeAtley and Laura Kroart for their data collection guidance.

References

Footnotes

  • i The lower per cent agreement for secondary pack colours was mostly due to different perceptions of similarly shaded colours (eg, grey vs silver, burgundy vs red).

  • Contributors RS and MOC conceived the study and the analysis plan. TB purchased the packs. TB and SAD coded the data and conducted the analysis. SO consulted throughout the data collection, coding and analysis process. TB drafted the manuscript. RS, MOC, SO and SAD reviewed the manuscript and provided input to its finalisation.

  • Funding Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number FP00003667.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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