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  • Health & Medicine

Tobacco marketing – hiding in plain sight

by Chris Woodhall | Analysis

23 October 2013

2 comments 2 comments

Plain, standardised cigarette pack

The evidence that standardised packs work is clear

Marketing is part of our lives.

It may not force us to buy the latest smartphone or pizza. But it’s there, everyday, nudging us in a variety of directions. It suggests what will make us look good, what will ‘make our lives better’ or simply what looks like it might make a nice lunch as we browse the supermarket shelves.

Let’s take that as a given.

How many products are marketed at us that could kill us when used as the manufacturer intended?



That’s why the work of our scientists at the Centre for Tobacco Control Research at the University of Stirling is important. Their work is behind much of the life-saving public health legislation for tobacco.

Our researchers in Stirling are continuing to contribute to the growing evidence that putting all tobacco products in standardised packaging reduces the appeal of tobacco. It’s been a couple of years since we discussed some of the evidence supporting the introduction of standardised packaging.

Since then several more studies from Stirling and around the world have added yet more evidence that removing the power of the branding from tobacco products is the crucial next step in protecting children from the harms of tobacco.

A slow portion of caution

In July Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt said that the Government wanted to wait to assess the impact of standardised tobacco packaging in Australia before making a final decision on the policy in England.

As we wrote at the time, this is an unnecessarily cautious approach to an important public health issue. Delay means ignoring a public health measure that could help discourage the 207,000 children who start smoking every year in the UK.

The evidence? Follow the money… Even before we look at the studies highlighting the effectiveness of standardised packaging, the actions of the tobacco industry in recent years speak volumes.

They’ve spent millions of pounds opposing standard packs through adverts and a concerted campaign to bury this measure.

And they’ve also been busy showing the power of pack design. There’s been a sharp increase in levels of pack innovation in recent years from tobacco companies; in 2011 one retail publication noted “…an unprecedented level of new tobacco launches – everything from female-focussed super-slim and demi-slim cigarettes to flavour-changing innovations”, which came ahead of the introduction of the removal of tobacco displays in large shops in April 2012.

The obvious question – why would tobacco companies spend such vast sums if they didn’t think packaging worked?

Health research vs tobacco marketing

Tobacco marketing

Tobacco packaging is a powerful marketing tool

The answer is obvious. They know packaging works, and they are putting up a ‘bare knuckle fight’ to protect one of the last opportunities to market their product.

But the public health community has gone toe to toe, carrying out detailed research that has put the tobacco industry on the ropes: and it’s worth recapping round by round:

  • In 2011, a small study from Dr Crawford Moodie showed that smokers rated standardised packs negatively versus branded packs. They also took the cigarettes out from their pocket or bag less often, handed them out less frequently and often hid the pack from others, compared with branded packs.
  • This was followed up by a larger study, which showed that women get less satisfaction and enjoyment from smoking cigarettes from standardised packs, and that health warnings are more noticeable on de-branded packs
  • An Australian study carried out as standardised packs were being introduced there found that people smoking from standard packs thought that the cigarettes were of a lower quality. They also found smoking less satisfying than they did a year ago and indicated that quitting was higher up on their list of priorities.
  • By this point Dr Moodie and colleagues at the University of Stirling, Linda Bauld and Martin Stead, were moved to ask “How much evidence is enough?”
  • A further study from Stirling examined how teenagers perceived cigarette packaging,. Teenagers described branded packs as “snazzy” , “sophisticated” and , “more attractive to young people.” Both boys and girls alike were curious about the slim, lip-stick style packs saying they would be encouraged to buy them.

In lobbying against standard packs, the tobacco industry-funded Tobacco Retailers Alliance warned that for shopkeepers “… it will take much longer to find the product a customer wants if they are all in plain packs and look similar”.

  • But a study that looked at the impact of standardised packs on retailers in Australia showed that they had not caused sales staff any problems in serving customers.
  • These findings support an earlier Australian study that the average staff selection times for packs actually decreased as shops transitioned from branded to standard packs.

The latest

Most recently, research from the Universities of Nottingham and Stirling looked at the reactions of 1025 UK children (aged 11-16) who had never tried smoking to three different types of pack – regular, novelty and standardised packs. Children preferred the colourful and novelty packs – such as Silk Cut Superslim’s elegant and feminine slim pack shape, Marlboro Bright Leaf’s Zippo style flip-top opening, and Pall Mall’s bright pink pack.

Tobacco packs

‘Glitzy’ packs attract young people

Alarmingly, children who liked these packs were the same children who said they were more tempted to smoke – for example those receptive to the Silk Cut pack were over four times more likely to be susceptible to smoking than those who were not receptive to this pack.

But once again, the study confirmed that plain, standardised packaging reduced the appeal of smoking to the children.

The picture has already developed

Edwin Land, Inventor of the Polaroid Camera stated that “Marketing is what you do when your product is no good“. That’s a pretty sweeping statement, but for tobacco it’s pretty apt.

Tobacco is the only consumer product that will kill half of its long-term users when used as instructed, and has no safe level of use. It has been cynically – and expertly – marketed for decades, by companies in full-knowledge of its dangers.

It is, in short, no good.

Like any new public health measure, it will take many years for the full impact of standard packs in Australia to emerge, but with every delay, more children are being lured into a deadly addiction.

The evidence is emphatic that removing glitzy packaging changes perceptions of smoking.

We vaccinate our children against deadly diseases because of the evidence available.

We put seatbelts on them because of the evidence available.

And we teach them about the risks of busy roads and talking to strangers, because of the evidence available.

Right now, the evidence is clear about tobacco marketing. It shows that standardised packs can discourage children from a deadly habit. It’s time to protect our kids from tobacco marketing.

Chris Woodhall and Ruth O’Sullivan in our Tobacco Control team

A full summary of all the studies into standardised packaging and tobacco marketing since the systematic review is available here.


  • callum littlewood
    29 January 2014


  • Ali Richards
    24 October 2013

    Great article!

    Fully support your work!

    Ever thought about refering to it as ‘tobacco prevention’ rather than ‘tobacco control’?

    It seems far more appropriate to me.


  • callum littlewood
    29 January 2014


  • Ali Richards
    24 October 2013

    Great article!

    Fully support your work!

    Ever thought about refering to it as ‘tobacco prevention’ rather than ‘tobacco control’?

    It seems far more appropriate to me.