Media Briefing: Standardised Cigarette Packs

Thursday 26 February 2015

Department of Health images: for illustrative purposes only


Monday 2nd March marks the end of the “stand still” period following the notification to the European Commission of the draft regulations.[i] From this date the Regulations can be passed by the UK parliament. Regulations on standardised tobacco packaging were laid before Parliament on Monday 23rd February and the Government has committed to allow time for the Regulations to be debated in both Houses of Parliament and passed before Parliament is dissolved for the General Election. As yet no date has been set for this but it will have to be before Parliament is dissolved on Monday March 30th. The last sitting day of Parliament is currently expected to be on Thursday 26th March.

PLEASE NOTE: Standardised packs are NOT plain white packs
They carry graphic and text health warnings as above
Print standard images are available from ASH

Why Standardised Packaging?

1. Standardised packaging would remove the attractive promotional aspects of existing tobacco packaging, and require that the appearance of all tobacco packs would be uniform, including the colour of the pack. Standardised packaging would also allow the promotion of strong anti-smoking and health messages. The packaging would not be “plain”.
2. Smoking tobacco is a lethal addiction. Cigarettes are the only legal products sold in the UK that kill their consumers when used exactly as the manufacturer intends. No company should be allowed to promote such a product through advertising and marketing. Because smoking is an addiction that for most smokers begins in childhood, children, and the most vulnerable groups of children in particular, need protection from the tobacco industry’s search for new addicts. Tobacco packaging should be made as unattractive as possible.

3. In April 2012, the UK Government launched a consultation on whether to introduce standardised packaging, following a commitment in its Tobacco Control Plan for England.[ii] On 28th November 2013, the Government announced that it would table an amendment to the Children and Families Bill giving the Secretary of State the power to introduce standardised packaging by Regulations, and that it had appointed Sir Cyril Chantler to review the public health evidence on the issue. He reported on 31st March 2014, concluding that: “I am satisfied that the body of evidence shows that standardised packaging, in conjunction with the current tobacco control regime, is very likely to lead to a modest but important reduction over time on the uptake and prevalence of smoking and thus have a positive impact on public health.” [iii] On 21st January 2015, Public Health Minister Jane Ellison MP announced that: “We will bring the regulations before Parliament in this Parliament. Should Parliament support the measure, we will be bringing the prospect of this country’s first smoke-free generation one decisive step closer.” [iv]

Why is it about Protecting Children?

4. Smoking is an addiction that begins in childhood; two thirds of smokers report that they started before they were 18 years old. [v] The tobacco industry needs these new smokers as its existing customers quit, become ill or die prematurely. Half of all lifetime smokers will die from smoking related disease, more than 100,000 people across the UK every year. [vi] Smoking rates are particularly high among vulnerable groups, including children in care. [vii] [viii]

Is There Evidence that Standardised Packaging Works?

5. A systematic review of published studies on tobacco packaging, commissioned by the Department of Health from the Public Health Research Consortium (PHRC),[ix] found evidence for all three of these effects. The PHRC reported that: “there is strong evidence to support the propositions set out in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control relating to the role of standardised packaging in helping to reduce smoking rates; that is, that standardised packaging would reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products, it would increase the noticeability and effectiveness of health warnings and messages, and it would reduce the use of design techniques that may mislead consumers about the harmfulness of tobacco products”. The authors published an update in September 2013, looking at 17 further studies published since the systematic review. These studies reinforced the findings of the systematic review. [x]

6. The March 2015 edition of the journal Addiction contains a series of papers on plain packaging published between 2008 and 2015, which support the following conclusions

• Plain packaging may reduce smoking rates in current smokers by reducing the extent to which the package acts as an unconscious trigger for smoking urges.
• Following Australia’s 2012 policy of plain packaging and larger pictorial health warnings on cigarette and tobacco packs, smoking in outdoor areas of cafés, restaurants, and bars declined, and fewer people made their packs clearly visible on tables.
• Consumer research by the tobacco industry between 1973 and 2002 found that variations in packaging shape, size and opening method could influence brand appeal and risk perceptions and thereby increase cigarette sales.
• Removing brand imagery from cigarette packets seems to increase visual attention to health warnings in occasional and experimental adolescent smokers, but not among daily adolescent smokers.
• Standardised packaging could be more effective than larger health warnings in undermining the appeal of cigarette brands and reducing intention to buy cigarettes. [xi]

7. In his review for the Government on the public health evidence for standardised packaging, Sir Cyril Chantler reported that: “the aim of standardised packaging is to reduce the tobacco package’s visual identity and appeal as an advertisement for the product. There is very strong evidence that exposure to tobacco advertising and promotion increases the likelihood of children taking up smoking. Industry documents show that tobacco packaging has for decades been designed, in the light of market research, with regard to what appeals to target groups. Branded cigarettes are ‘badge’ products, frequently on display, which therefore act as a “silent salesman.” Tobacco packages appear to be especially important as a means of communicating brand imagery in countries like Australia and the UK which have comprehensive bans on advertising and promotion… It seems to me that children and non-smokers are not, and cannot be, quarantined from seeing tobacco packaging and in my view once they are exposed to this packaging, they are susceptible to its appeal whether it is intended to target them or not. In the light of these and other considerations set out in my report I believe that branded packaging contributes to increased tobacco consumption.” [xii]

Is Standardised Packaging Working in Australia?

8. Australia was the first country in the world to require all tobacco products to be sold in standard packaging. The law came into effect on 1st December 2012.[xiii] The introduction of standardised packaging has been strongly backed by the World Health Organisation, which has stated that “WHO actively supported Australia’s pioneering tobacco control measure and is standing firmly behind all countries that face intimidation from big tobacco”. [xiv]

9. The tobacco industry has waged an expensive but unsuccessful legal campaign against the Australian legislation. In August 2012, Australia’s High Court dismissed constitutional challenges brought by tobacco companies, awarding costs in favour of the Australian Government. The industry is encouraging further challenges from Governments through the World Trade Organisation [xv] and under the Australia – Hong Kong Bilateral Investment Treaty, but these are also considered likely to fail. [xvi]

10. In opposing the introduction of standardised packaging in Australia, the tobacco industry made a series of claims about what it considered to be likely unintended consequences. Specifically, the industry claims that it would lead to:

• an increase in serving times for customers in small retail outlets, and a consequential shift in trade to supermarkets
• an increase in use of illicit tobacco
• a collapse in prices of tobacco products, and
• a consequent increase in consumption.

None of these claims is backed by independent evidence, although studies funded by the tobacco industry have purported to support them.

11. Tobacco industry predictions about the possible effect of standardised packaging on the retail trade were based on interviews with just a handful of retailers. [xvii] Claims about the effects in the retail sector after the legislation was in place were based not on analysis of objective data but rather on surveys sponsored by Philip Morris Ltd seeking retailers’ opinions. Peer reviewed studies by contrast which objectively measured retrieval time suggest that there was no significant long-term increase in serving time. [xviii].

12. The tobacco industry has repeatedly claimed that use of illicit tobacco products has increased in Australia since the introduction of plain packaging. However, data from Australian Customs does not support this. Sea cargo detections make up 95–99 per cent of the volume and value of illicit tobacco detected by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. The total weight of illicit tobacco detected by Australian Customs has remained roughly the same since 2007/8, while the proportion of tobacco seizures made up of manufactured cigarettes started to rise in 2009/10, well before the introduction of standardised packaging.

13. Philip Morris Limited argued in a submission on the Australian standardised packaging laws that the policy would ‘inevitably drive overall market prices down’ citing an estimate by LECG Consulting that prices would reduce between 4.7 and 19.2%. [xix] Results from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Consumer Price Index indicates that the price of tobacco products has in fact risen steadily in Australia, with the index figure increasing from 52.2 in September 2001 to 113.1 in September 2013. [xx]

14. In statements to the Chantler Review and the media, tobacco companies have stated that sales had increased by 0.3% in Australia since the introduction of plain packaging. [xxi] This is flatly contradicted by the industry’s own reports to investors, and by independent market research data. For example, in reporting six monthly results for the first half of 2013, Imperial Tobacco’s Chief Executive Officer Alison Cooper has stated that: “As I’m looking at Asia Pacific, I should also mention Australia, we’ve had the first six months of the plain pack environment in Australia. We’ve seen the market decline roughly 2% to 3%, so maybe not as bad as we might have anticipated.” [xxii] Industry information analysed by independent market research company Euromonitor International also show a decline in sales in Australia between 2012 and 2013. [xxiii]

Would Standardised Packs Increase Illicit Trade?

6. The tobacco industry and its front groups claim that illicit trade in tobacco products would be made worse by the introduction of standardised packs. In fact, all the key security features on existing packs would also be on standardised ones, including a covert anti counterfeit mark, which can be read by scanners, and number codes on each pack, which will be developed into a European and then global system through the tracking and tracing system mandated under Article 8 of the Illicit Trade Protocol [xxiv] and included in the revised EU Tobacco Products Directive. The UK legislation would allow Ministers to specify any features in pack design which they consider desirable as a protection against illicit trade. [xxv]

7. HM Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Agency have agreed and implemented a detailed strategy to tackle tobacco tax evasion, and the UK Government provided substantial additional resources for this purpose during the last spending review. Internationally, the European Union has concluded legally enforceable agreements with the big four tobacco manufacturers to tackle illicit trade and included measures against illicit trade in the revised Tobacco Products Directive. The result has been that the level of the illicit tobacco trade has roughly halved since 2000. HMRC’s “Tax Gap” figures for 2013/14 show as a mid-range estimate that 10% of cigarettes consumed in the UK were illicit (a small increase of a mid-range estimate of 9% in 2012/13). The figure for hand rolled tobacco was 39% in 2013/14. [xxvi]

8. Speaking in the Commons Adjournment Debate on standardised packaging on 21st January 2015, Public Health Minister Jane Ellison MP stated that: Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has undertaken a detailed assessment of the potential impact of standardised packaging on the illicit market. It concluded: ‘We have seen no evidence to suggest the introduction of standardised packaging will have a significant impact on the overall size of the illicit market or prompt a step-change in the activity of organised crime groups.’ The assessment is expected to be published in full soon.” [xxvii] The assessment was published on 12th February 2015. [xxviii]

Existing Tobacco Packaging: Marketing and Advertising

9. Tobacco packaging is carefully used by the tobacco industry as a residual form of advertising. Most forms of tobacco advertising were banned under the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002. Sponsorship of sport by tobacco companies was prohibited from July 2005. Retail displays of tobacco products were ended in large stores from April 2012 and in all other stores from April 2015, under the Health Act 2009. [xxix]

10. However, smokers display tobacco branding every time they take out their pack to smoke. In doing so the industry analysis is that they are making a statement about how they want to be seen by others as they display and endorse the brand they have chosen.

Examples of UK cigarette packaging

11. The first picture above shows how the tobacco industry bends the existing rules about packaging to appeal to new consumers in their target markets and to try to discourage existing users from quitting. On the outside, the pack of Benson and Hedges “Silver Slide” looks not unusual. But unlike most packs, to open it you have to press the side opening where it says “Push and Slide”. That exposes a tray containing the cigarettes. Printed on the tray are the words: “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very Best advice & then going away and doing tHe exact opposite”. G.K. Chesterton.

Standardised Packaging: The Tobacco Industry Campaign

12. The tobacco industry has launched a well-resourced and highly misleading campaign in the UK and around the world to try to obstruct the introduction of standardised packaging. In the UK alone, Japan Tobacco International, one of the big four tobacco multinationals (JTI, Philip Morris International, Imperial and British American Tobacco), announced that it was spending £2 million in its campaign against standardised packs.[xxx] The company ran a series of newspaper advertisements against the policy which were ruled misleading, in whole or in part, by the Advertising Standards Authority. Internal documents from Philip Morris International, reported in the Observer, showed that the company’s key lobbying message was “wait and see what happens in Australia (2-3 years)”.[xxxi] A campaign group called “Hands off Our Packs” was set up by the tobacco industry funded front-group FOREST and organised a petition against standardised packs in response to the government consultation.[xxxii] Although they routinely refuse to reveal their sources of funds, it has been confirmed that the Institute of Economic Affairs and another think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, have received financial contributions from the tobacco industry.[xxxiii] [xxxiv] Both of these organisations also actively campaign against the introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco products.

13. The tobacco industry and its allies have claimed that the UK packaging industry will be hit by the introduction of standardised packs. In fact, cigarette packaging accounts for less than 5% of all packaging cartons manufactured in the UK, with a total value of less than £50 million. The number of people employed in the UK in manufacturing tobacco packaging is 325. Tobacco packaging will of course still be needed under standardised packaging rules. [xxxv]

Public and Cross Party Support

14. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown strong public support for standardised packaging. In January 2015, a YouGov poll for Cancer Research UK found that 72% of those polled supported the policy, with only 15% against. A majority of those intending to vote Conservative (75%), Labour (75%), Liberal Democrat (80%) and UKIP (64%) supported the policy. [xxxvi]

15. Standardised packaging is strongly supported by politicians of all parties and by crossbenchers in the House of Lords. On 22nd January 2015, Shadow health Secretary Andy Burnham MP tweeted as follows: “I often take to Twitter to challenge @jeremy hunt. But today I congratulate him for having courage to set clear timetable for standard packs”. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP replied: “Thanks @andyburnhamp. Nice to enjoy a rare moment of consensus! Let’s hope both our children can grow up in a smokefree generation.” [xxxvii] Also on 22nd January, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on LBC radio about standardised packaging that: “… we should be taking sensible steps to discourage people – particularly kids – from taking up smoking.” He added: “There is evidence, and I think it’s been borne out by the latest facts in Australia, that it does help minimise the marketing appeal.” [xxxviii]


[i] The Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Product Regulations  Notification Number: 2014/427/UK European Commission
[ii] Department of Health, The Tobacco Control Plan for England. March 2011
[iii] Standardised packaging of tobacco: Report of the independent review undertaken by Sir Cyril Chantler. April 2014
[iv] House of Commons Hansard21st January 2015, column 344
[v]Robinson S & Bugler C. Smoking and drinking among adults, 2008. General Lifestyle Survey 2008. ONS, 2010.
[vi] Smoking statistics: Illness and death, ASH Fact Sheet, April 2013                                                           [vii] Mooney A, Statham J, Monck E, Chambers H. Promoting the Health of Looked After Children, A Study to Inform Revision of the 2002 GuidanceResearch report by the Thomas Coram Research Unit Institute of Education, University of London, and National Children’s Bureau, (for the Department for Children, Schools and Families). June 2009
[viii] Also see:Joint statement of the Smokefree Action Coalition and the Fostering Network on smoking and foster care. November 2009
[ix] Moodie C, Stead M, Bauld L et al. Plain tobacco packaging: a systematic reviewPublic Health Research Consortium, University of Stirling, 2012.
[x] Moodie C, Angus K, Stead M, Bauld L. Plain tobacco packaging research: an update, Public Health Research Consortium, University of Stirling, Institute of Education and UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, 2013.
[xi] The growing evidence on standardised packaging of tobacco products  Addiction 17 Feb. 2015
[xii] Standardised packaging of tobacco products: report of the independent review undertaken by Sir Cyril Chantler: summary of findings, paragraphs 7 and 8.
[xiii] Senate passes world first for plain packaging of tobacco legislation.  Department for Health and Ageing, 10 November 2011
[xiv] World Health Organization. Reducing the appeal of smoking: first experiences with Australia’s plain packaging law. May 2013. Accessed 25 June 2013
[xv] Indonesia becomes fifth country to file WTO case against Australia tobacco plain packaging: Accessed 11 October 2013
[xvi] Australia’s plain tobacco packaging law at the WTOThe Conversation, 15 May 2013. Accessed 2 Jan. 2014
[xvii] Deloitte. Potential impact on retailers from the introduction of plain tobacco packaging. February 2011.Sydney: Alliance of Australian Retailers.
[xviii] Wakefield M, Bayly M, and Scollo M. Product retrieval time in small tobacco retail outlets before and after the Australian plain packaging policy: real-world study. Tobacco Control, 2014; 23(1):70-6. Bayly M, Scollo M, and Wakefield M. No lasting effects of plain packaging on cigarette pack retrieval time in small Australian retail outlets. Tobacco Control, 2014.
[xix] Philip Morris Limited. ‘Commoditising tobacco products through plain packaging will harm public health, violate treaties and does not meet the test of ‘evidence-based policy’Submission on the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill Exposure Draft Melbourne 2011.
[xx] Australian Bureau of Statistics. 6401.0 Consumer Price Index, Australia Table 11. CPI: group, sub-group and expenditure class, index numbers by capital city. Canberra: ABS, 2013.
[xxi] Tobacco sales rise in first year of Australia plain packaging policy: Packaging News, 24th March 2014. Accessed 1st February 2015
[xxii] Transcript of Imperial Tobacco halfyear 2013 results Interview with Alison Cooper, CEO, and Bob Dyrbus, FD
[xxiii] Euromonitor Internationaldata provided to Cancer Council Victoria for Tobacco in Australia: Facts and Issues, Chapter 2
[xxiv] Please note: Details of existing security systems are private information from industry source
[xxv] Proposal for a revised directive on tobacco and related products. European Commission
[xxvi] HMRC Tobacco tax gap estimates 2013-14. Accessed 1 February 2015
[xxvii] House of Commons Hansard: 21st January 2015, column 343
[xxviii] The Introduction of Standardised Packaging for Tobacco: HMRC published 12th February 2015
[xxix] ASH Law Guide. Accessed 25 June 2013
[xxx] Tobacco Journal International. JTI campaigns against UK plain packaging9th July 2012. Accessed 25 June 2013
[xxxi] Revealed: tobacco industry’s secret plan to see off plain packaging: Observer, 27th July 2013
[xxxii] Tobacco control research group, University of Bath: Tobacco Tactics: Hands Off Our Packs: Accessed 27 June 2013
[xxxiii] Health groups dismayed by news that “big tobacco” funded right wing think tanksThe Observer, 1st June 2013
[xxxiv] Correspondence between BAT and Action on Smoking and Health. 18 June 2013. Accessed 19 December 2013
[xxxv] Smokefree Action Coalition briefing: The economic impact of the introduction of plain, standard tobacco packs on employment in tobacco manufacturing and tobacco packaging in the UK. March 2013
[xxxvi] YouGov poll, fieldwork 13t-14th January 2015, survey carried out online, total sample size 1,834 adults.
[xxxvii] Burnham praises Hunt for cigarette packaging plans, ITV
[xxxviii] Nick Clegg: Plain packaging minimises marketing appeal, ITV