What’s the fuss about plain, brandless cigarette packaging?

1 March 2012

Matt Harper

Matt Harper

Delivery Director

You may have seen the headlines in the news a few months back relating to 'plain brandless packaging for cigarettes'. There are a number of views on this subject.

cigarette-packs-plainSummary of the facts

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a guideline where it wants countries that have signed up to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to enforce the introduction of plain, brandless packaging for cigarettes.


Well the idea is that the removal of well known colours, designs and trademarks that are familiar to consumers will...

  • Reduce the number of existing smokers
  • Discourage young people smoking, and
  • Increase the effectiveness of health warnings

Whilst the above are clearly good objectives, let's try and understand what it will mean on a day to day basis for those involved in the millions of transactions at the 'point of sale'.

What will this mean for retailers? 

Think of your high street newsagent who has a wall of tobacco products behind the counter.

Packs will now all look very similar, which means telling the difference between the numerous brands in stock will be harder, when trying to serve the customer. Stocking the cigarettes in the first place will also take longer, as cartons will only having words to differentiate between brands. 

The above will lead to an increase in the transaction time, as well as a concern around security, as the vendor's back will be turned for longer when trying to find the brand that has been selected.

Many shopkeepers are worried about 'light fingers' in their shops as it is, and feel that they will need eyes in the back of their heads; certainly a large number of shopkeepers I have spoken to will want to lock the till every time they turn their backs.

What will this mean for consumers?

As the packs all look the same, consumers will not immediately be able to identify one brand from another. They will find it harder to determine whether a brand is in stock or not, leading to a longer decision time before a product is selected for purchase. Many feel that this restricts their freedom of choice.

There is also one other group that can't be ignored. Illicit trade is big business, so we should spare some thought for the fraudster / bootlegger / smuggler / illegal trafficker etc. They currently account for ~20% of the market in the UK alone, and the implications are not only financial. Non-regulated cigarettes are cheaper and more accessible to under-age smokers, who would otherwise be refused in a shop.

Will this fuel the black market?

Copy cat products - Plain packaging will be easier and cheaper to imitate. So that's 1-0 to the bad guys.

More harmful products - Bootleg products are not guaranteed to be as pure as those sold by highly regulated cigarette manufacturers, thereby the risk of the product being more harmful is increased. That's 2-0 nil.

The impact on 'cash' - Tax revenues fall. In these times of austerity, surely we want the opposite. There's the hat-trick. One more and I'm off home!

User-age smokers - Under-age smokers who wish to obtain cigarettes by whatever means via the shop  (whether using false id, or the help of older friends), may actually decide to take matters into their own hands and resort to the man on the street, who is selling his wares illegally, for less, no questions asked. The manner of the transaction is bad enough without the worry of where that may lead. This 'man on the street' is hardly your law abiding, tax-paying role model for minors to look up to! This is a rout. I'm off.

I have taken a view based on the facts I have in front of me. To be antagonistic, and play devil's advocate, I feel the packaging should be going the other way. What is wrong with being able to differentiate between brands? Why not make life harder for the bad guys? With regard to the law abiding people who choose to smoke; if it isn't broken, don't fix it.

Why doesn't the WHO work with cigarette companies to make the packaging more advanced and therefore harder to imitate? Surely this would result in an equal and opposite, and a 4-0 defeat against the black market?

Furthermore, save the cash being wasted in the law courts and donate it to something more productive!

What do you think?

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