The tobacco industry spent decades arguing that introducing ‘standard packaging’ for their products and removing most of the branding would be a boon to illicit sales. New research published today in the journal Thorax finds no evidence of this in countries that have introduced the policy.
The new analysis examined the introduction of standard packaging in the UK, Ireland and France and found it was not linked to increases in illicit cigarettes, according to a new analysis.
In the UK, from May 2017, tobacco had to be sold in packaging with no branding apart from the product name in a standard font, size and colour. Similar requirements came into force in France from January 2017 and September 2017 in the Republic of Ireland. European countries followed Australia, the first country in the world to introduce this policy in 2012.
Using data collected across Europe before and after these laws came into force, researchers from Imperial College London found that there was no evidence that people reported being more likely to be offered ‘black market’ cigarettes in countries where the laws were introduced compared to those where it was not.
The researchers say their findings show that the tobacco industry claims that introducing these laws will lead to increases in tobacco being counterfeited, smuggled or evade taxes, should be ignored.
Dr Anthony Laverty, from the School of Public Health at Imperial and first author on the paper, said: ‘Since Australia implemented plain packaging in 2012, evidence has increased that it reduces uptake of smoking and improves public health. The tobacco industry and its proxies, however, claim that these laws will increase illicit tobacco, as they are keen to avoid measures which they know will reduce the appeal of smoking.’
In the analysis, the Imperial team looked at more than 50,000 responses from two large surveys of adults across all 28 countries in Europe, with data collected in 2015 and 2018. Participants included non-smokers and smokers, and were asked ‘Have you ever been offered black market cigarettes to buy or smoke?’ and could respond on a scale from ‘no, never’ to ‘Yes, frequently (once per week or more)’.
The results revealed an overall downward trend in the proportion of people reporting being offered these products both in countries implementing plain packaging and those not.
In the three countries which brought in the laws levels of people being offered illicit cigarettes fell from 19.8% to 18.1%, and in the other countries in Europe, these fell from 19.6% to 17.0%. After accounting for uncertainty in the estimates as well as other tobacco control policies across countries, these two declines were not found to be different from each other in statistical analyses.
Ailsa Rutter OBE, Director of Fresh said: ‘This study adds to all the other available evidence that the illicit tobacco market is declining and flies in the face of continued tobacco industry arguments. Between 2015 and 2018, HMRC figures for the UK show that the volume of illicit factory-made cigarettes fell from 5.1 bn to 2.5 bn. But illicit tobacco is still a burden on communities, enabling children to smoke, keeping smokers hooked and fuelling inequality. There is more that can and should be done including licensing the tobacco supply chain to prevent products [from] from entering the black market in the first place. However, rather than back measures like these, tobacco companies instead make spurious claims about evidence-based public health measures.’
Dr Nick Hopkinson, from Imperial’s National Heart and Lung Institute and Chair of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said: ‘Standardised packaging reduces the appeal of tobacco products, especially to young people. Our findings should reassure legislators, in countries where standardised packaging has not yet been introduced, that they can ignore bogus tobacco industry arguments that the policy will increase illicit tobacco use, and go ahead with implementing it as soon as possible.’
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