Cannabis packaging regulations limits branding opportunities

Federal regulations roll out to discourage underage use of cannabis products

Health Canada’s proposed regulations for cannabis packaging—set to go into effect in October—restricts promotional advertising, which is generally appealing to young people. ‘Plain packaging’ will be implemented for cannabis products

“We know from alcohol and tobacco that with the brand imagery on packages—even if you don’t have TV or print advertising—it’s pretty easy to design that in ways that generally target particular groups of people,” says Dr. David Hammond, an associate professor in the School of Public Health & Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.

What will be most important, come legalization, will be the information given on levels of THC and CBD, says Hammond. Especially when edible cannabis products come online in a year.

Communicating THC levels

Waterloo University has done studies showing that people have no idea whether 20 milligrams of THC is a lot or a little, says Hammond. This problem is similar to what those in public health know about the nutrition fact tables on the back of food.

“We’ve had that on the back for decades, and most people still have no idea if 1000 milligrams of sodium is a lot or a little,” says Hammond. “Some experienced consumers of cannabis will know those numbers, and probably as a whole, we’ll get more familiar with those numbers. But I think the THC and CBD levels are so important in terms of the product. I think the government could do more in terms of communicating that.”

Better communication could mean putting signs or traffic light symbols on the packaging indicating high or low THC levels.

“I think especially for younger users those THC numbers will have no meaning whatsoever. A little more context would be helpful,” says Hammond. “We should not treat people like they are experts. Most of us have trouble with basic numbers. When you’re trying to communicate something important, do it in an easy way.”

Cannabis industry concerned about branding limits

The cannabis industry is largely unhappy with the restrictions on branding. Legalization poses a massive opportunity for cannabis companies to become household names and expand their reach globally. Limited branding regulations restrict individual companies’ ability to make a name for themselves.

“We’ll see as the industry responds to these regulations … how they stretch limits on branding and brand imaging,” says Hammond. “Some people are saying the industry is going to issue a legal challenge. I think it’s a good opportunity to see what side of the issue they’re on. Whether they’re on the side of the public health objective of regulations, or whether they’re just going to try and maximum their revenue.”

The cannabis industry says they will make labelling that only targets adults, but a 16-year-old likes what a 21-year-old likes, says Hammond.  

“We’ve learned that unless you specify in the way that the government has, it’s just too easy to exploit,” says Hammond.  

Many tobacco companies argue that not having brand imagery on packs will increase contraband and illicit sales, says Hammond. However, in other countries, there has been no connection between plain packaging and contraband.

“The things that affect contraband and illicit sales are price and availability,” says Hammond. “To argue that you need to make the product appealing for people to use the legal product, is a dangerous argument. Especially when primary objective is to reduce use amongst kids.”