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Is It a Package, or Is It a Warning Sign?

It’s impossible to take controversy out of certain kinds of products—or the packages they come in. More consumer-goods packaging is starting to feel the heat.

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: August 26, 2015

Packaging doesn’t like controversy. Confronting troublesome public issues isn’t its job—it exists to convey products to end-users and to deliver brand messaging, and that’s all.

But, because certain kinds of products can never shed controversy, the packaging inevitably gets drawn in.

Take marijuana, either as medicine or as a recreational stimulant. Legalization is making pot a big legitimate business that will get bigger, creating corresponding opportunity for makers of marijuana-friendly containers. This report from Plastics News, for example, notes that a company called Kush Bottles Inc. has become one of the fastest-growing businesses in America because of its position as a supplier of packaging to the cannabis industry.

But, Kush and its competitors in this space will always have to keep one eye on efforts to make marijuana packages more explicit about the psychoactive substance they contain. In Colorado, one of the birthplaces of legalization, the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division wants a stop-sign shaped symbol with the letters “THC” to appear on labels and individual items. State lawmakers also are pressing for a rule that would limit some types of marijuana products to single-serve packages (details here).

Cigarette packaging has been a focal point of controversy for years, with mandatory warnings about the hazards of smoking made increasingly visible on cartons and packs. In some countries, the call for more strident consumer alerts in tobacco packaging exceeds anything yet seen in the U.S.

Australia’s plain-package tobacco laws, enacted in 2012, require cigarettes to be sold in packages that look nondescript except for the grisly medical images that must cover most of the printable surface. The island nation of Cyprus has said that it too wants cigarette packages to be “gruesome” in keeping with a European Union directive on the dangers of smoking.

Some people think that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to combustible tobacco. Even if promoters of vaping are correct, it won’t spare the product and its packaging from tighter controls.

The title of a rule being developed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration speaks for itself: “Nicotine Exposure Warnings and Child-Resistant Packaging for Liquid Nicotine, Nicotine Containing E-Liquid(s), and Other Tobacco Products.” It comes in response to growing public concerns about liquid nicotine poisonings and exposures, especially those involving children. A bill to make packages of liquid nicotine child-resistant also is making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives.

The push to regulate the packaging of alcoholic beverages has not been as intense, but pressure could easily ratchet up. As they have succeeded in doing with tobacco, public health advocates in Australia want to put graphic warning labels on alcohol containers to discourage abusive consumption. According to one legal expert there, this could take the form of beer bottles displaying thirst-killing images of cirrhotic livers.

It could be argued that marijuana, tobacco, liquid nicotine, and alcohol are “sin” products that can’t help stirring up controversy around themselves and their packaging. But, what about something as innocent as shrimp? Think again. A federal lawsuit filed in California would force Costco stores to label shrimp from Thailand as a product of human slavery because the practice allegedly exists in that country’s seafood supply chain.

Pick up a package, take ownership of a seething social issue. Sugary soda undoubtedly will be next. It’s enough to make a shopper want to seek peace and quiet in the dull neutrality of a can of pork and beans (er, better make that vegetarian).  


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Label & Packaging Editor

Jennifer Matt

Patrick Henry, Section Editor
Pat has covered graphic communications for nearly 30 years as a reporter, an editor, and a commentator.


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