Campaigners hope UK will follow Australia’s lead on plain packaging for cigarettes

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 19 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e525

Re: Campaigners hope UK will follow Australia’s lead on plain packaging for cigarettes

Tobacco plain packaging improves retail transaction times: first real-life data from Australia repudiating tobacco retail industry scaremongering


Owen Carter, Matthew Welch, Brennen Mills, Tina Phan and Paul Chang
Edith Cowan University

On 1 December, 2012, Australia aimed to reduce the appeal of cigarettes by implementing mandatory, plain, generic packaging for all tobacco products.(1-2) The UK government is currently considering similar legislation but national retail groups, with generous funding from the tobacco industry, have mounted vigorous opposition campaigns, arguing generically packaged tobacco brands would be virtually indistinguishable on shelves, thereby increasing selection times and errors for tobacco transactions, leading to lost revenue and customers, and ultimately to store closures.(3) Two industry-funded, non-peer-reviewed studies predict transaction times will increase by 15–45 seconds and selection errors by 5–25%,(3-4) costing the sector around £37m each year.(5) In contrast, a scientific, peer-reviewed study simulating 5,200 tobacco transactions suggests selection times are actually quicker for generic than coloured packs (2•92 vs. 3•17 seconds, p<.05) and result in fewer selection errors (0•4% vs. 1•5%, p<.05) due to consistent labelling.(6) The industry dismisses this study as having ‘significant methodological shortcomings’ for failing to use experienced retail staff or account for distractions in the real retail environment.(7)

To determine the actual impact of plain packaging on transaction times in Australia, one month before and after 1 December 2012 we timed tobacco transactions at 100 convenience stores, newsagents, petrol stations and supermarkets from 16 suburbs of Perth, Australia. Researchers entered stores and asked for a pre-determined brand of cigarettes from a randomly ordered list of the 17 most popular tobacco brands in Australia.(8) Stopwatches concealed in pockets measured time from request to retailers either electronically scanning or placing requested cigarettes on counter. Researchers then apologised for forgetting their wallets, left stores and noted selection errors. Between October 2012 and January 2013 more tobacco retailers decreased than increased selection times (Wilcoxon Signed Ranks Test: n=61 vs. 39, z=-2•522, p<•05) with average selection times decreasing significantly from 8•94 seconds (95% CI 7•63–10•25) to 7•39 seconds (95% CI 6•38–8•40) (one-tailed paired-samples t-test: t(99)=1•964 p<•05). Selection errors also decreased from 3% to 2% (p=NS).

These real-life data confirm that generic tobacco packaging actually provides modest gains in retailer efficiency consistent with previous peer-reviewed data, completely contradicting self-interested, tobacco-industry-funded, non-peer-reviewed research. In the face of such evidence, national trade associations in the UK should urgently withdraw their objections to the tobacco plain packaging legislation currently being considered by the UK government—if they sincerely represent the best interests of their members and support the future health of British citizens.

1. Francis T. Plain cigarette packaging begins in Australia. The Lancet 2012;380(9857):1896.
2. Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011. Stat. No. 148, 2011. Available at (Accessed 12 January, 2013)
3. Deloitte. Potential impact on retailers from the introduction of plain tobacco packaging. Sydney: Alliance of Australian Retailers, 2011. Available at: (Accessed 12 January, 2013)
4. Visuality Group Limited. The Effects of Standardised Tobacco Packaging on Retail Service in the UK. Rural Shops Alliance, 2012. Available at: (Accessed 12 January, 2013).
5. Talking Retail. Plain tobacco packaging will cost convenience stores £37m a year, says report. 12 October 2012. Available at: (Accessed 12 January 2013).
6. Carter O, Mills B, Phan T, Bremner J. Measuring the effect of cigarette plain packaging on transaction times and selection errors in a simulation experiment, Tobacco Control, 21, 572–577, 2012.doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2011-050087.
7. Association of Convenience Stores. Consultation on Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Response of the Associate of Convenience Stores. UK, 2012. Available at: (Accessed 12 January, 2013)
8. Scollo MM, Winstanley MH, eds. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and Issues. 3rd edn. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria, 2008.

Competing interests: No competing interests

11 February 2013
Owen BJ Carter
Associate Professor
Matthew Welch, Brennen Mills, Tina Phan, Paul Chang
Edith Cowan University
270 Joondalup Dr, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, Western Australia, 6027.