Intended for healthcare professionals

Letters Plain packaging for cigarettes

Plain packaging for cigarettes improves retail transaction times

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 19 February 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1063
  1. Owen Carter, associate professor and research director1,
  2. Matthew Welch, research assistant2,
  3. Brennen Mills, research associate1,
  4. Tina Phan, research assistant1,
  5. Paul Chang, associate professor2
  1. 1Office of the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Health Advancement), Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia
  2. 2School of Psychology and Social Science, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia
  1. o.carter{at}

Australia implemented generic packaging laws on 1 December 2012.1 Similar legislation under consideration in the UK is vigorously opposed by national retail groups. Dubious tobacco industry funded studies predict tobacco transaction times will increase by 15-45 s and selection errors by 5-25%,2 3 costing retailers nationwide £37m (€43m; $57.5m) a year.4 Conversely, independent peer reviewed research simulating 5200 tobacco transactions suggested that the switch would speed up selection times (2.92 v 3.17 s; P<0.05) and reduce selection errors (0.4% v 1.5%; P<0.05).5 The industry dismissed this research for having “significant methodological shortcomings” because it failed to replicate the multiple distracters in the real retail environment.6

In October 2012 and January 2013 we timed tobacco transactions at 100 convenience stores, newsagents, petrol stations, and supermarkets in 16 suburbs of Perth, Australia. Researchers requested one of 17 popular brands of cigarettes (systematically randomised) and, using concealed stopwatches, measured the time from their request to shopkeepers electronically scanning or placing the cigarettes on counter. Researchers then apologised for forgetting their wallets, left, and noted any selection errors. More retailers decreased than increased selection times after 1 December 2012 (Wilcoxon signed ranks test: n=61 v 39, z=−2.522; P<0.05), on average decreasing from 8.94 s (95% CI 7.63 to 10.25) to 7.39 s (6.38 to 8.40; one tailed paired samples t test: t(99)=1.964; P<0.05). Selection errors also decreased from 3% to 2% (P not significant).

Our real life data confirm that generic tobacco packs provide modest gains in retailer efficiency. If they sincerely represent the best interests of their members and support the future health of British citizens, national retail groups should immediately withdraw their objections to generic tobacco packaging.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1063


  • Competing interests: None declared.


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