Plain Jane for Mary Jane packaging effective, study finds Researchers at the University of Calgary tested different kinds of weed packaging on students
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This article was published 17/12/2018 (1567 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Plain cannabis packaging with prominent health warnings effectively makes marijuana less appealing to young consumers, suggests new research from the University of Calgary.
The experimental findings, published last week in the journal BMC Public Health, support the Canadian government’s decision to make legal cannabis packaging mostly plain with limited branding, said University of Calgary psychology professor and paper co-author David Hodgins.
“It really does support the notion that good decisions have been made, and that the use of health warnings, at a population level, has an impact,” said Hodgins.
“And that doesn’t mean that each individual user is going to react in a specific way, and at the individual level, that people are going to make decisions based on health warnings,” Hodgins added.
“But overall, it has an influence, and moves people in a positive direction of not smoking too much.”
The experiment was conducted in late 2017, almost a year ahead of recreational marijuana legalization this past October and well before Ottawa released the initial regulations that showed what cannabis packaging would look like — mostly uniform in colour, with a large, bright yellow health message, a government-mandated warning symbol, and limited room for a “brand element” like a logo.
Participants were recruited from the University of Calgary student body, and the 656 students whose responses made it into the final analysis were about 20 years old on average.
‘It really does support the notion that good decisions have been made, and that the use of health warnings, at a population level, has an impact’ – University of Calgary professor and study co-author David Hodgins
The subjects were shown one of four mockup images of cannabis packaging. One was a branded package that looks much different than legal cannabis packaging looks today: it included a large, dominant logo, some splashes of colour, and no health warning. Other subjects were shown a plain package with no branding and no health warning, branded packages with five different health warnings, or plain packages with those same health warnings.
After viewing one of the four package types, the participants rated the degree to which they found the package appealing. Unsurprisingly, the most enticing packages were the branded ones with no warning.
“It’s reassuring, in the sense that people don’t particularly like the warning messages, and the presumed effect of messages is, in part, that they do have this negative emotional reaction,” said Hodgins.
Unexpectedly, plain packages with a health warning label were more appealing than plain packages without one. Hodgins said his team isn’t entirely sure how to explain that, although they wrote that it might have been because the health warning “increased attention and interest in the (otherwise plain) packages.”
Subjects who were shown cannabis packages with five different health warnings — including messages about risks related to brain development, impaired driving, nonlethal overdose, mental health issues and addiction — were asked to rate whether the warnings were effective, believable, and evoked fear. (Not all those warnings reflect the actual health warnings on real cannabis packaging.)
The warnings about impaired driving and brain development scored highest on all three measurements, in line with what participants already believed about cannabis. The warning about cannabis being addictive, however, “received among the lowest ratings of effectiveness, believability, and evoked fear,” the study found.
“Basically, it points out areas that we need to increase public awareness on,” said Hodgins.
The study also found that reading the health warnings on cannabis packages made subjects more likely to believe those warnings, Hodgins added.
“In the cigarette world, that has been associated with people having a larger desire to quit smoking,” he said.
“So the apparent impact of the warnings in this small study paralleled what we know happens with cigarette warnings, so that really supports the notion that Health Canada has mandated these warnings.”
The experiment supports the notion that plain cannabis packaging “seems to operate just like it does on tobacco packages,” said David Hammond, a professor with the University of Waterloo’s school of public health and a leading expert in tobacco packaging. (Hammond wasn’t involved in the University of Calgary study, although one of his former students was a co-author.)
“The bottom line is, when you remove brand imagery, it reduces the appeal, and some would say, inducement to use the product,” said Hammond.
Government-regulated cannabis packaging in Canada is slightly more permissive than tobacco packaging, Hammond added.
“In tobacco you cannot have any colour or brand imagery, other than the one uniform colour… (With) cannabis, they allow them one colour of their choice, and secondly, they allow a certain size of brand imagery.”
Hammond thinks future research should address whether that limited branding affects how consumers perceive the actual cannabis packages in stores today.
“If I’m a cannabis company, I’m going to do everything I can with that little, loonie-sized bit of brand imagery,” he said.
“Is that an appropriate amount of allowance, given that you’re trying to say, ‘Well, these things aren’t quite as bad as cigarettes’? Or is it a huge loophole that they can drive a truck through?”