No evidence standard packs boost illegal tobacco trade

Cancer Research UK

Claims that standardised ‘plain’ packaging of tobacco in Australia would lead to an increase in the illegal tobacco trade or hurt small retailers are untrue, according to a new study.

“This study adds even more weight to a case which has already been made" - Chris Woodhall, Cancer Research UK

Australian researchers found that there is no evidence for these concerns, which have been predominantly put forward by the tobacco industry.

The team conducted phone interviews with smokers about their tobacco purchasing habits a year before the measure was introduced in 2011; during roll-out in 2012; and one year after implementation.

Publishing their findings in the journal BMJ Open, the researchers assessed whether changes in packaging would deter people from buying their tobacco from small independent retailers, prompt a rise in the availability of cheap products sourced from Asia, and increase the use of illicitly traded tobacco, as predicted by the tobacco industry.

Analysis of responses from just under 2000 smokers showed no change in the places smokers usually bought their tobacco, between 2011 and 2013.

Almost two thirds of people said they bought their tobacco from supermarkets in 2011 (65.4 per cent) and in 2013 (65.7 per cent). Similarly, there was no fall in the proportion who bought from small independent retailers: just over 9 per cent said they bought their tobacco in these outlets in 2012 and just over 11 per cent said they did so in 2013.

Australia was the first country in the world to introduce standardised packaging for tobacco products in December 2012. New Zealand, Ireland, and the UK are currently considering similar legislation, with officials keen to learn from the Australian experience of the measure.

The tobacco industry has argued that standardised packaging will lead to an increase in the size of the illegal tobacco market.

But this latest study shows that the use of cheaper Asian brands was low, at around one per cent in 2011 and 2013. The use of illicit unbranded tobacco didn’t increase either – sticking at around two per cent.

The authors acknowledge that as the surveys were restricted to the State of Victoria, where only a quarter of the population of Australia lives, they may not be applicable across the country and potential unintended consequences of the standardised packaging legislation should continue to be monitored.

But the authors conclude: “In the meantime, this study provides no evidence of the unintended consequences of standardised packaging predicted by opponents [having] happened one year after implementation”.

Last month, official figures from the Australian Government showed a major drop in Australian smoking rates over a three-year period that included the introduction of standardised packaging.

Cancer Research UK believes that that these findings undermine opposition to standardised packaging, and put the momentum firmly behind calls to see the measure introduced in the UK.

Chris Woodhall, senior policy officer at Cancer Research UK said: “This study adds even more weight to a case which has already been made. Figures released last month show Australians are now smoking fewer cigarettes than ever and this research demonstrates that this has been achieved without the negative consequences claimed by the tobacco industry.

“As well as smoking prevalence falling, Australian smokers are placing quitting as a higher priority in their lives. The way forward for the UK is clear: the Government must introduce regulations for standardised packaging without delay.”


  • Scollo, M, et al. (2014). Early evidence about the predicted unintended consequences of standardised packaging of tobacco products in Australia: a cross-sectional study of the place of purchase, regular brands and use of illicit tobacco BMJ Open, 4 (8) DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005873