• Marketing;
  • packaging;
  • plain;
  • public policy;
  • tobacco;
  • tobacco control

Most governments now restrict tobacco marketing and, as of 2009, 26 countries are considered to have ‘complete’ bans on direct and indirect tobacco advertising and marketing [1]. The tobacco industry still markets their products in these countries, however, largely because even ‘complete’ bans do not cover all marketing media [2]. Branded packaging, for instance, is not considered within the gamut of these putatively ‘complete’ marketing bans but nevertheless remains a pivotal promotional vehicle. Ironically, the tobacco industry used packaging as one of its first promotional tools [3], presaging its future role as a ‘silent salesman’ that shapes consumers' purchases within retail environments [4]. More recently, as advertising expenditures have progressively declined for many consumer products, packaging has assumed even greater significance in the marketing mix [5,6].

In recognition of packaging's marketing potential, ‘plain’ brown standard packages for tobacco products were first suggested in the mid-1980s [7]. By the early 1990s academic interest in plain tobacco packaging increased, although this subsequently declined as the political climate changed and more conservative governments were less committed to this particular tobacco control measure. Nearly a decade later, interest in plain packaging has re-emerged and intensified. Between 2007 and 2008 the European Commission first considered plain packaging as a regulatory option, France placed plain packaging on the policy agenda at European Union (EU) level during its Presidency of the EU and the UK Department of Health alluded to plain packaging in a consultation on the future of tobacco control. Although the Finnish Minister of Health and Social Services Paula Rissiko recommended plain packaging at EU level, and Senator Steve Fielding tabled a private Members bill to introduce plain packaging in Australia in 2009, it is 2010 that was a turning point in the history of plain packaging. In this year the European Commission consulted on the possible revision of the current Tobacco Products Directive, including plain packaging [8], the possibility of plain packaging resurfaced in the United Kingdom with the government's comprehensive tobacco control strategy for England [9] and, most notably, the Australian government announced its intention to introduce plain packaging from January 2012 [10].

The growing international momentum around plain tobacco packaging recognizes the many public health benefits this may bring. Plain packaging has been found to increase the salience and effectiveness of health warnings [11,12]; reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco packaging and the product [13,14]; and reduce the ability of packaging to mislead consumers about the harms of smoking [15]. Tobacco companies contest plans to introduce plain packaging, however, claiming that it will have no effect on smoking behaviour [16]. Putting to one side the curious logic of opposing measures deemed to be ineffective, the tobacco companies' continued challenge on proposals for plain packaging has stimulated research efforts to estimate the benefits this policy measure may deliver.

Munafòet al.'s [17] interesting eye-tracking research concluded that plain packaging would have a protective effect and benefit for non-smokers and recreational smokers. Their study reflects the increasingly innovative approaches taken to estimate plain packaging's effects. For example, ongoing research in England is using functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the impact of branded and unbranded packaging on brain regions related to reward and threat, and psychophysiological research is planned in Spain, using BIOPAC equipment (Varna, Bulgaria), to assess emotional responses to package design. In addition, recent ‘naturalistic’ research in Scotland, where smokers used plain packs in real-life settings, represented the first attempt to create a natural behavioural context from which researchers explored smokers' experiences and behaviours.

Given the tobacco industry's insatiable demand for ‘more research’ and requirement that researchers somehow evaluate the outcome of an intervention prior to its implementation, these studies will both broaden and deepen the evidence base on which policy makers may draw. Consistent replication and extension studies, using both innovative and also more established methodologies, will further test and develop the existing evidence base, although already robust, and help to make explicit the tobacco industry's reliance on packaging as a vital marketing tool.

Over the last quarter of a century, then, research on plain packaging has become more innovative and policy action has replaced rhetoric. With the tobacco industry desperate to protect packaging, and the pervasive reach that it delivers, plain packaging will severely restrict, if not destroy, the marketing potential of one of their oldest promotional tools, and only those countries that implement such a measure can lay claim to having a ‘complete’ marketing ban.


  1. Top of page
  2. Declarations of interest
  3. References
  • 1
    World Health Organization (WHO). WHO Report On The Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2009. Implementing Smoke-Free Environments. Geneva: WHO; 2009.
  • 2
    Carter S. M. Going below the line: creating transportable brands for Australia's dark market. Tob Control 2003; 12(Suppl. 3): iii8794.
  • 3
    O'Kell E. The Anglo-American ‘Tobacco wars’ and the use of the classics to establish a global company. New Voices Classic Recept Stud 2007; 2: 5572.
  • 4
    Pilditch J. The Silent Salesman: How to Develop Packaging that Sells. London: Harper and Row; 1961.
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  • 7
    Lee B. Sell tobacco in no-frills wrappers, urge doctors. The Journal, 1 October, 1986. Available at: (accessed 1 May 2010; archived by Webcite at
  • 8
    European Commission. Public consultation on the possible revision of the Tobacco Products Directive 2001/37/EC; 2010. Available at: (accessed 8 May 2010; archived by Webcite at
  • 9
    Her Majesty's Government. A Smokefree Future: A Comprehensive Tobacco Control Strategy for England. London: Stationery Office; 2010.
  • 10
    Australian Government. Taking Preventative Action—A Response to Australia: the Healthiest Country by 2020—The Report of the National Preventative Health Taskforce. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2010.
  • 11
    Germain D., Wakefield M., Durkin S. Adolescents' perceptions of cigarette brand image: does plain packaging make a difference? J Adolesc Health 2010; 46: 38592.
  • 12
    Gallopel-Morvan K., Béguinot E., Martinet Y., Ratte S. The Impact of Plain Packaging on Young People: An Experimental Study. World Conference on Tobacco Health, Mumbai, India, 9 March 2009.
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    Hoek J., Wong C., Gendall P., Louviere J., Cong K. Effects of dissuasive packaging on young adult smokers. Tob Control 2011; 20: 1838.
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  • 16
    Philip Morris International. Philip Morris Limited's submission to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. Inquiry into Plain Tobacco Packaging (Removing Branding from Cigarette Packs) Bill 2009 ; 2010. Available at: (accessed 8 May 2010; archived by Webcite at
  • 17
    Munafò M., Roberts N., Bauld L., Ute L. Plain packaging increases visual attention to health warnings on cigarette packs in non-smokers and weekly smokers but not daily smokers. Addiction 2011; 106: 150510.