Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Supermarket cigarettes: the brands that dare not speak their name

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 21 March 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:929
  1. Martin J Jarvis, reader in health psychology (martin.jarvis{at}
  1. Imperial Cancer Research Fund Health Behaviour Unit, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London WC1E 6BT
  1. Correspondence to: Dr Jarvis
  • Accepted 9 January 1998

In terms of brand shares, the cigarette trade in the United Kingdom is dominated by the multinational tobacco companies, whose brands together hold over 90% of the market. But the situation in terms of numbers of brands is quite different. Recent years have seen a proliferation of brands sold by one retailer only (termed supermarket own label brands). In 1995, 153 (54%) brands monitored by the Laboratory of the Government Chemist were supermarket brands, compared with 114 (46%) from multinational tobacco companies and 17 (6%) brands of limited availability (for example, the brand sold in the House of Commons—“House of Commons King Size”). This contrasts with 10 years ago, when only 4% were supermarket brands.

Supermarket brands sell at a substantial discount and are not advertised, and there is little public awareness that major retailers are active players on their own account in the cigarette market. The market share held by supermarket brands could expand, particularly if cigarette advertising is banned and as the real cost of cigarettes increases. This article aims to document the situation, to draw up a profile of people who smoke these brands, and to comment briefly on some of the issues raised.

Summary points

All the main supermarkets sell own label brands of cigarettes; these make up the majority of brands on sale in the United Kingdom

Most supermarkets do not put their name on the packet, suggesting their awareness that involvement in the tobacco trade sits uneasily with the healthy image they like to promote

Supermarkets' own label brands currently have a market share of 7%, but this could increase if there were a ban on advertising cigarettes

Supermarket brands sell at a 20% discount and appeal to smokers who are poor, elderly, mainly female, and more heavily dependent

Supermarket brands exploit groups who can least afford to smoke, suffer most from smoking, and most need to give up

Supermarket brands

Supermarket brands typically carry either no identification of their source or the name of one of a small number of independent tobacco companies. With rare exceptions, they do not carry a retailer's name in the way own label brands of other products usually do. But each brand is made for one retailer and sold only through its stores. Supermarket brands were therefore ascertained by inspecting the shelves in different stores, followed by telephone calls to confirm brand identity. Table 1 lists the main retailers and their brands. Each of the main supermarket chains sells these brands, as do cash and carry outlets and wine merchants. Apart from Asda, none of the main supermarkets has its own name on the packet. The average price for these brands (20 king size cigarettes) is about £2.48, 20% less than the brand leaders (£3.36 recommended retail price, but often selling for about £3.20). The total value of supermarket cigarette brands is estimated at £720 million per year out of a total tobacco market of £12 billion.1

Table 1

Own label cigarette brands of some major retailers

View this table:

Who smokes supermarket brands?

Data from the general household survey for 19942 were used to estimate the market share of supermarket brands and to construct a profile of people who smoke these brands. The general household survey is a continuous national survey based on a representative sample of private households; every two years it includes questions on smoking. It is the principal national source of information on smoking habits. In the 1994 survey, information on the brand smoked was provided for 3928 (1691 men, 2237 women) of 3961 adult smokers of manufactured cigarettes. As no single supermarket brand commanded a substantial market share, smokers of these brands were grouped into a single category. The market share of supermarket brands overall was 7.2%. The sales weighted yields of these brands were 12.3 mg of tar, 0.9 mg nicotine, and 14 mg carbon monoxide—appreciably more than the 10.7 mg tar, 0.8 mg nicotine, and 12.2 mg carbon monoxide for other brands. Smokers of supermarket brands tended to be older, and there was a preponderance of women (table 2). People who smoked supermarket brands were compared with other smokers by means of logistic regression analysis (table 3). They were poorer, as shown by their increased likelihood of having a manual occupation and living in rented accommodation. They were also heavier smokers, whether judged by consumption of cigarettes or the time from waking to smoking the first cigarette of the day. These characteristics were similar in men and women.

Table 2

Percentage (number) of cigarette smokers smoking supermarket brands. Numbers are total respondents to general household survey, 19942

View this table:
Table 3

Odds of smoking supermarket brands of cigarettes relative to mainstream brands brands.* Variables are adjusted for each of the other variables in the model

View this table:


There has been a rapid growth in own label cigarette brands in the United Kingdom. They are now sold by all the major supermarket chains. None of these brands individually commands a substantial market share. The general public seems unaware of their existence. Why should they be considered worthy of comment?

“Food chains' involvement in the tobacco trade sits uneasily with their image as purveyors of fresh, healthy food”

The main food chains have promoted their image as purveyors of fresh, healthy food. Their involvement in the tobacco trade sits uneasily with this. The selling of cigarettes on the grounds that it is necessary to meet customers' needs may be a specious justification but is perhaps acceptable to many as a recognition of the realities of the market place. But own label brands go well beyond this passive servicing of customer demand. Supermarkets which arrange for the manufacture of own label cigarettes and sell them at a substantial discount are themselves active participants in the tobacco industry. No doubt identification with the tobacco industry is something they would wish to avoid. Recent comment indicates that concern about possible liability in tobacco litigation is leading a number of retailers to reassign ownership of their cigarette brand names to the tobacco companies that manufacture them.1 There is a strong suggestion from this that retailers wish to profit to the maximum from their tobacco trade while avoiding both liability for harm to their consumers' health and any explicit association of their names with the trade. This may explain why they do not put their names on the packets. Even the staff of the supermarkets that sell these brands seem unaware of their companies' involvement. These are the brands that dare not speak their name.

“Retailers wish to profit to the maximum from their tobacco trade while avoiding … any explicit association of their names with the trade”

The attraction of own label brands to consumers is simple. By undercutting mainstream brands by up to 20%, they mitigate the effects of the annual increase in the real cost of cigarettes that is currently government policy. The responsiveness of own label sales to price increases is recognised by industry commentators.3 As the cost of tobacco continues to increase, and if mainstream brands lose their advantage from heavy advertising and promotion, these brands could take an increasingly large share of the market. In so doing, they would work against the achievement of targets for reducing the prevalence of smoking.

As would be expected from their price, own label cigarettes appeal especially to the poor, to the elderly, and to more heavily dependent smokers. Own label brands in the United States appeal to just the same constituency.4 These are groups who are at high risk of smoking related diseases and who have a particular need to give up smoking, but for whom the availability of low cost cigarettes acts as a disincentive to giving up. Thus, even within the context of the cigarette market, own label cigarettes are not neutral. They exploit groups who smoke most, can least afford to smoke, suffer most from smoking, and most need to give up.


Funding: Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

Conflict of interest: None.


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