Feature Public Health

From brand to bland—the demise of cigarette packaging

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d4376 (Published 13 July 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4376
  1. Simon Chapman, professor,
  2. Becky Freeman, lecturer
  1. 1School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia
  1. Correspondence to: S Chapman simon.chapman{at}sydney.edu.au

Neutering the appeal of the once glamorous cigarette package has become a powerful weapon in tobacco control’s arsenal. And Australia is about to take the boldest step of all, find Simon Chapman and Becky Freeman


Clockwise from top left: Turkish Marlboro; Brazilian packaging; graphic warnings on Australian products; the proposed shrinking of the brand logo in Australia; Player's from Canada; and health warnings on South American tobacco

Cigarette packs were the site of the world’s first tobacco control policies, when the first health warnings appeared in Britain and the United States from the mid-1960s. Tobacco companies have ever since sought to guard the integrity of the box—the “silent salesman” that is displayed to others many times each day—as their primary promotional vehicle.1 Industry has resisted every attempt to substitute bland, general cautions with explicit warnings, references to “addiction” and “kill,” and efforts to increase the size of the lettering.2 When Canada set the pace by being first to introduce graphic, pictorial warnings in 2001, the industry turned its resistance to images. Some 43 nations now have graphic warnings.3

Last week, the Australian government opened the next chapter in the regulation of tobacco packaging by introducing a bill that will see all packs in identical “olive brown” livery, with the front and back panels given over to graphic pack warnings, and each brand distinguishable only by the brand name in a standard font.4 For the first time in the world, a government has mandated the entire packaging for a consumer good, sending an unambiguous message that tobacco is unique in the marketplace as an exceptionally hazardous product.

All three political parties support the bill, as does a large majority of the public.5 Only 17% of adults smoke in Australia, and some 95% of those regret starting.6 The tobacco industry ranks poorly on trust in the Australian community.7 The bill will therefore soon become law, with full implementation from mid-2012.

To describe the industry’s reaction to the plan as apoplexy would be an understatement. It has spent an estimated $A20m (£13.5m; €15m; $21.6m) in advertising against the bill,8 9 10 rallied international business interests, and threatened legal action—a threat now realised by Philip Morris. Legal analysis suggests that the government has little to fear either legally11 or from posturing by tobacco growing nations in the World Trade Organisation.12


Clockwise from top left: Late 1940s advertisement for Camel cigarettes; one of nine package designs which US regulators are enforcing from 2012; Thai cigarettes; Portuguese health warning on the Lucky Strike brand; Indonesian packaging before the introduction of health warnings

The industry argues that there is no evidence that plain packaging will reduce use because no nation has ever implemented it. However, considerable experimental and smoker preference data exist.13 Tobacco industry trade magazines run candid advertising from packaging companies talking about the central role of packaging in differentiating what are essentially homogeneous products which many smokers cannot differentiate under blinded test conditions. In 2008, a Tobacco Journal International cover story was headlined “Plain packaging can kill your business,” which is of course a collateral goal of tobacco control.

The industry has also forecast that in future it will need to compete only on price, an admission that without packaging to differentiate brands, consumers will find little to distinguish between them.14 But if price falls, the government can rapidly increase tobacco tax, as it did in April 2010 by 25%. No Australian aged under 19 has ever seen a tobacco advertisement other than on the internet or abroad, following the advertising ban in 1992. The next generations of Australians will now grow up without seeing a product that kills half its long term users being sold packaged in highly attractive colours.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4376


  • Competing interests: The authors have completed the ICJME unified disclosure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare no support from any organisation for the submitted work; and no financial relationships with any organisation that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years. SC is a board member of Action on Smoking and Health Australia.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.