Big Tobacco is desperate to prevent ‘plain packaging’ spreading around the world

Typical cigarette packages before and after plain packaging was introduced


Coming up to a year after standardised ‘plain packaging’ was fully implemented in the UK on 20 May 2017, the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA) [1] and now Japan Tobacco International (JTI) [2] have claimed that it’s a failure.

Why is Big Tobacco bothering, when it’s clear the UK is tough on tobacco, won its case in the courts and is not going to reverse the legislation? The reason is obvious, this is a last ditch and desperate attempt to delay and discourage the many other governments coming down the same track. Three countries have fully implemented plain packs to date (Australia, France and the United Kingdom), by the end of this year it will be six, with seven more having passed legislation and more following on behind. The dominoes are falling, markets around the world are going dark, and Big Tobacco is running scared. The WTO decision on the legality of plain packs is expected shortly, and the outcome, a defeat for the tobacco industry, has already been leaked [3].

JTI claim that plain packs aren’t supported by the public, citing a survey commissioned from Kantar TNS which it says is the ‘largest public opinion poll of its kind since plain packaging was introduced’. This is incorrect. The ASH smokefree GB survey undertaken earlier this year had a sample size of 12,767, which is five times bigger than the 2,464 in the JTI Kantar survey. Findings from the ASH survey confirm the levels of support found in previous annual smokefree GB surveys, with just under three fifths of the public supporting standardised plain packaging (58%) while only around one in ten oppose (11%). The public support plain packs, to suggest otherwise is ludicrous.

When it comes to the evidence that the policy has been ineffective, the report JTI commissioned from Europe Economics ignores the fact that it was always known that plain standardised packaging would have the biggest impact on discouraging young people from taking up smoking rather than in helping addicted adult smokers quit. This is a much smaller group than existing adult smokers, so any such effect will be small, particularly in the early years. In the first year or two of implementation most young people at the age of initiation will have been exposed throughout their life to the colourfully branded packaging as it was prior to the introduction of standardised plain packs. As with the advertising ban, it is in future years when young people grow up never having seen such packaging that we expect it to have greatest impact. This effect will be cumulative as young people grow up into adulthood in cohorts with lower smoking rates, and older smokers die off. The Europe Economics report only includes data up to January 2018 so it simply cannot capture any of this.

Furthermore, the ability of standardised packaging to produce immediate effects during the year that the legislation was phased in (i.e. not fully implemented) is predicated on the assumption that the policy was smoothly and quickly brought into effect by all parties. Evidence from the Institute for Social Marketing (University of Stirling), already shows that before, during, and after the implementation of standardised tobacco and the TPD, tobacco companies engaged in activities which may have disrupted and confounded the impact of the legislation on smoking attitudes and behaviour [4]. This included introducing limited-edition fully-branded packs and re-usable tins, changed brand or variant names (e.g. including the addition of a colour descriptor, with colour often used by consumers as an indicator of product strength or harm), and continued innovation of their products (e.g. new filter designs). In essence, they used the implementation period to continue to create interest in their products.

In addition, the UK Government allowed tobacco companies and retailers twelve months, from May 2016 to May 2017, to introduce standardised packaging, which is longer than the two other countries (2 months in Australia, 9 months in France) that have introduced this measure. The report claims that ‘the penetration of TPD2+PP compliant products has increased gradually over the implementation period’. This is not consistent with further findings by researchers at the University of Stirling, analysing real-time data from independent and convenience (small) retailers [5], which instead shows that tobacco companies and retailers responded to the extended implementation period by continuing to sell fully-branded products for as long as they could, meaning that most of the leading brands of cigarettes and rolling tobacco in the UK were not sold in standardised packs until near the end of the twelve months. It is plausible that this staggered introduction of standardised packaging may have mitigated some of the immediate intended effects of the legislation by desensitising consumers to the new designs and graphic health warnings.

Once the legislation became mandatory for packs at point of sale, which was not until May 2017, the University of Stirling researchers found that 97% of tobacco sales volume [6] in small retailers was compliant with the TPD and standardised packaging legislation (rising to 99.5% ten weeks after full implementation). Given the aforementioned industry-led disruption during the transition period, research evaluating the impact of standardised packaging should reflect on how trends in smoking attitudes and behaviours change in the years after full implementation, not reactive conclusions based on limited time periods.

Governments need to apply the rule of thumb known as the ‘scream test’, if the industry is campaigning so hard to prevent it, clearly standardised ‘plain’ packaging does work, otherwise Big Tobacco wouldn’t care.

ASH thanks researchers from the Institute for Social Marketing, University of Stirling — part of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies — for their analysis of the Europe Economics report for JTI.

The studies carried out by the University of Stirling were funded by Cancer Research UK.


[1] Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, Plain packaging failing one year after full introduction, 14 May 2018

[2] Japan Tobacco International, Plain Packaging on Tobacco Backfires Within First Year in the UK, 17 May 2018

[3] Reuters, Australia wins landmark WTO tobacco packaging case — Bloomberg, 4 May 2017

[4] BMJ Tobacco Control, How tobacco companies in the UK prepared for and responded to standardised packaging of cigarettes and rolling tobacco, January 2018

[5] Nicotine and Tobacco Research, Introduction of Standardized Tobacco Packaging During a 12-Month Transition Period: Findings From Small Retailers in the United Kingdom, 12 January 2018

[6] BMJ Tobacco Control, Did independent and convenience (small) retailers comply with standardised tobacco packaging in the UK?, November 2017