Standardized cigarette packaging – a plain benefit?

Could glitzy cigarette branding soon be replaced by standardized dull brown packs? UK parliament will vote on plain packaging laws before the next general election in May, and Ireland has just become the first EU country to ban branding. While the effectiveness of similar legislation in Australia remains unclear, what scientific evidence supports the move?

Smoking kills an estimated 100,000 people in the UK each year, and the vote on standardization comes as a recent survey by Cancer Research UK showed that 72% of voters across all parties support uniform cigarette packaging. Meanwhile, although the impact of three years of plain packaging laws in Australia have been contested by tobacco firms, recent figures show that smoking rates have fallen, expenditure on tobacco related products has decreased by A$100m (£53m) and calls to quitting helplines have increased by up to 78%.

Plain packets


Health organizations have used cigarette packets as a communication tool for decades, with shocking text-based and pictorial warnings that aim to deter people from smoking. Studies have shown some impact of these on smokers, who were more likely to have negative thoughts about smoking, and to show signs of moving to quit. Whether graphic warnings actually cause people to quit has been more difficult to prove. Nevertheless, a recent study published in Public Health used specialised eye-tracking devices to show that people paid more attention to warning messages when the packaging was standardized, compared to branded formats.

smoking text warning

As well as heightening visual attention to warning messages, could plain packaging also increase their impact on smoking behaviour? With only health warnings and pictures of tar-blackened lungs to promote their contents, it may not come as a surprise that smokers who were given a plain packet of cigarettes after a 12-hour non-smoking period had a reduced craving to smoke, compared to those who were given their own or a non-preferred brand. In the same study, published in Psychology and Health, non-branded packs appealed less, reduced motivation to buy cigarettes, and caused negative perceptions of the popularity or stylishness of the person.

Researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Bristol have also recently shown that plain packs caused a 9% decrease in tobacco-seeking behaviour compared to branded packs. Exposure to uniform packets primed the same level of tobacco choice as no stimulus, with the same proportion of smoker participants choosing a chocolate alternative. A focus group study of Glaswegian adolescents has even shown that the appearance of the cigarette itself affects its attractiveness, showing that standardization laws could, or should, extend to stick design.



Amid concerns that trade in cheap counterfeit cigarettes will rise and the threat of legal action by tobacco companies, parliament has stalled plain packing legislation in the UK. However, scientific evidence supports the move, suggesting that plain packets are less appealing and decrease tobacco-seeking behaviour, which could also prevent people from taking up smoking for the first time – particularly younger age groups who are known to be both socially conscious and vulnerable to marketing strategies. The impending vote means that we could soon see standardized packets lining the shelves, instead of familiar, brightly coloured brands – would you be put off?


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Veronica Wignall

Veronica is a Biology graduate from the University of Bristol, she is currently an editorial assistant but hopes to move into science media comms! Follow Veronica on Twitter @vronwig

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