Evidence Review | Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
sign up

There are considerable volumes of evidence, both research studies from a number of countries and statistical evidence from Australia, which demonstrate plain packaging is a policy that will contribute to reducing tobacco use. Standard texts on marketing and branding also show how effective packaging can be at attracting consumers, and this is no different for tobacco products.

In order to ensure robust policy development, governments should consider the full evidence base relating to plain packaging, including all the arguments against the policy put forward by the industry. Good evidence leads to good policy, but, in case of legal challenge, a careful record of what evidence has been considered, when and by whom, can also be crucial in demonstrating proper due process.

The evidence review that we recommend is not onerous or complicated. This Toolkit explains and summarizes all the relevant evidence, and provides links to the original documents so that they can be downloaded.

The review of the evidence should include:

1. Supporting research evidence
(full details on RESEARCH EVIDENCE page of the Tools and Resources)

Over the course of 20-30 years, there have been many peer-reviewed scientific research studies looking at the likely impact plain packaging of tobacco would have on smoking behaviors and attitudes and how that would impact on smoking rates. Research has been conducted in ten different countries using a range of methodologies, and each study taken in isolation only provides part of the picture.

Countries that have already adopted plain packaging have commissioned independent reviews of the research to ensure that there is a clear, complete, and balanced picture of what the overall evidence is on the impact plain packaging will have. By the time of the Hammond Review in 2014, a total of 69 original empirical research studies were reviewed (as of October 2016 that number had increased to over 75 relevant studies). Five systematic evidence reviews show that the evidence on plain packaging is notable for its breadth and diversity of methods but also for its consistency in the results. The evidence reviews were:

  1. i. Cancer Council Victoria (Australia 2011)1
  2. ii. The Stirling Review (United Kingdom 2012 and updated 2013)2
  3. iii. The Chantler Review (United Kingdom 2014)3
  4. iv. The Hammond Review (Ireland 2014)4
  5. v. The Cochrane Review (2017)

All these reviews reach the same conclusion: that there is strong and highly consistent evidence to support the argument that plain packaging would contribute to its objectives (as set out in Guide 1.1).

The Chantler Review notably concluded that “[all the evidence] points in a single direction, and I am not aware of any convincing evidence pointing the other way.”

2. Post-implementation evidence from Australia and elsewhere (full details on the AUSTRALIAN POST IMPLEMENTATION EVIDENCE page of the Tools and Resources)

The official Post-Implementation Review (PIR) was published by the Australian government in February 2016 5. The review concludes that:

“While the full effect of the tobacco plain packaging measure is expected to be realised over time, the evidence examined in this PIR suggests that the measure is achieving its aims. This evidence shows that tobacco plain packaging is having a positive impact on its specific mechanisms as envisaged in the TPP Act. All of the major datasets examined also showed ongoing drops in national smoking prevalence in Australia.”

One quarter of the 2.2 percentage point drop in prevalence is attributed to plain packaging. That’s equivalent to 118,000 fewer people smoking in Australia in just three years as a direct result of plain packaging.

Plain packaging contributed a statistically significant decline in smoking prevalence of 0.55 percentage points over a 34-month post-implementation period, one quarter of the total decline in average prevalence rates observed.6

Official statistics on smoking rates and tobacco consumption in Australia are published on the Department of Health’s website.7 There are a range of independent surveys conducted by different research organizations and using different methods and cohorts. Each new survey has shown a continued fall in rates since implementation of plain packaging in 2012.

The British Medical Journal edition of Tobacco Control in April 2015 on the implementation and evaluation of the Australian plain packaging policy included eighteen research papers11 dealing with various aspects of policy impact and implementation. These demonstrated that plain packs were impacting positively on the aims and objectives of the policy.

The studies also showed that, contrary to the tobacco-industry predictions, there was no evidence that plain packaging led to lower prices for tobacco products or to an increase in the use of illicit tobacco products.

Australia’s declining smoking rates

  • From 2014 to 20-15, 14.7% of adults aged 18 years and over smoked daily (approximately 2.6 million smokers), decreasing from 16.1% in 2011-20128
  • From 2012 to 2015, there was an overall 20% decline in the proportion of secondary students and young adults (aged 18–24) smoking at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime9
  • In 2014, 5% of 12 – 17 year olds were current smokers, down from 7% in both 2011 and 200810

3. Evidence about branding on packaging and its influence on smoking (full details on the in TOBACCO BRANDING PACKAGING pages of the Tools and Resources)

It is useful to consider tobacco packaging within the broader context of branding, marketing, and packaging of products more generally.

Marketing theory demonstrates that packaging has a number of functions, including assisting consumers to identify and distinguish brands, but that it is also used to promote the product as an important component of overall marketing strategy. Packaging can heighten a product’s appeal and create positive impressions and emotional connections to help "drive the sale."

Packaging of tobacco products has been shown to be more important as a promotional tool than for other products. Firstly, in many countries where there are TAPS bans, it is the last remaining means of advertising a brand. Secondly, tobacco product packs are a "badge product," because users regularly openly display their packs in public 11.

“. . .the pack provides a direct link between consumers and manufacturers, and is particularly important for consumer products such as cigarettes, which have a high degree of social visibility. Unlike many other consumer products, cigarette packages are displayed each time the product is used and are often left in public view between uses. As a result, both smokers and non-smokers report high levels of exposure to tobacco packaging…”

Tobacco Labelling & Packaging Toolkit: A guide to FCTC Article 11. David Hammond, 2009

Internal tobacco industry documents show the importance of packaging in promoting tobacco products. There have been a number of studies looking into internal industry documents that have been leaked or released in US litigation settlements. The Hammond Review in particular includes the results of this research, which demonstrates how the industry places significant importance on the role of packaging in promoting and advertising its product.

4. Conducting a market survey of the tobacco products and packaging

A survey of tobacco products (and their packaging) available on the market in a country can assist in the design of the plain packaging policy. It also acts as a demonstration of what branding exists on the market, which can assist in showing why the policy is necessary. The issues that the survey should address include: What is the most common form of packet for each type of product? Are there any particularly novel forms of packaging? Is certain packaging clearly aimed at a certain sections of the community? Are there brand families that continue to mislead consumers as to the relative harms of each brand variant (for instance, are there ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ variants of a particular brand)?

A comprehensive sample of the tobacco product packaging available in a country should be kept as it can be very useful for demonstrations and as evidence in case of a legal challenge. One of the most powerful ways of demonstrating the need for plain packaging to people unfamiliar with smoking or tobacco control is to show examples of attractive or health-reassurance packs that are available on the domestic market.

5. Country specific statistics on smoking prevalence and tobacco consumption

In order to establish that it is necessary and justified to introduce plain packaging, the aims and objectives should be set within the context of a country’s public health, agenda which will include consideration of the smoking prevalence and tobacco-consumption rates, and whether these have been falling, rising, or stagnating.

6. Arguments opposing plain packaging
(full details are available on the OPPOSING ARGUMENTS page of the Tools and Resources)

It is important for a full and complete policy-development process to properly consider the views and arguments of the tobacco industry, proxy organizations or other interested stakeholders. This should include the industry’s analysis of the evidence relating to the impact on smoking rates in Australia post-implementation. In addition, the wider impacts should be carefully considered, in particular the potential or alleged links to down trading and illicit trade. This can lead to better a policy development and importantly, it protects a government from accusations of an unfair process.

This process should take into account the vested interests of those views and also where legitimate criticisms of the opposing arguments have been made. For instance, none of the expert analyses or studies relied upon by the tobacco industry to support their claims have been subjected to peer-review process, but have been the subject of both academic 12 and judicial criticism. The judge in the High Court legal challenge to the UK's plain packaging laws said that:

“On the basis of my own review of the methodologies adopted by the [tobacco companies’] experts … I conclude that that body of expert evidence does not accord with internationally recognized best practice.”13

As the OPPOSING ARGUMENTS pages show, the tobacco-industry arguments opposing plain packaging are almost wholly unfounded, and there are a number of research studies that have demonstrated this 14; but a fair process requires proper consideration of all views.

7. Local evidence and research

In addition to the solid global evidence base supporting the adoption of plain packaging, it is a policy recommended by the implementation guidelines to the evidence based WHO FCTC. This provides effective grounding for a government decision to proceed with the policy without the necessity of commissioning new local research or studies into its likely impact in a particular country. From a legal perspective, this position has been confirmed in the ruling by the international investment tribunal in PMI v. Uruguay. 15

However, governments should not be dissuaded from commissioning or conducting studies or research into the policy in their country. Additional evidence will be useful for any government seeking to defend the policy against tobacco-industry attacks. In addition, there may be circumstances particular to a country that would warrant new research. For instance, in Uruguay, there is a brand of cigarettes that has packaging using a color very similar to the green/brown color used for tobacco-product plain packaging in Australia, the UK, France, Ireland, and Hungary. Positive associations may have already developed in relation to that color by on the part of some consumers. Some country-specific research into the most appropriate color to use could be of use in such circumstances.

End Notes

5See https://ris.govspace.gov.au/2016/02/26/tobacco-plain-packaging/.

62014 population of Australia was 23,490,700; 81.2% (or 19,074,448) were over 14; 0.55% drop in prevalence of a 19,074,448 cohort of over 14s is 104,909, rounded up to 105,000. Population figures from Australian Bureau of Statistics. Adjusting for population increase gives a figure of 118,000. See also: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6248cfee-11e3-11e6-91da-096d89bd2173.html#axzz48RqRYYOE

7See http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/tobacco-kff.

8Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Health Survey: First Results 2014–15

9Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Tobacco indicators: measuring midpoint progress—reporting under the National Tobacco Strategy 2012– 2018. Available from: http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=60129557116.

10Cancer Council Victoria, Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco in 2014.

11See http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/24/Suppl_2?utm_source=World%20Congress%20on%20Tobacco%20and%20Health&utm_medium=E- mail&utm_campaign=plain%20packaging.

12A.A.Laverty, et al.“Use and abuse of statisticsin tobacco industry-funded research on standardised packaging.”Tobacco Control 2015;24:422–424.

13R (BritishAmerican Tobacco & Ors) v. Secretary of State for Health [2016] EWHC 1169 (Admin), paragraph 374.

14For instance, this peer-reviewed study that looks at the tobacco industry arguments used in New Zealand: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/early/2016/09/29/tobaccocontrol-2016-053146.abstract?papetoc.

15A fact sheet summary of the case can be found hereis available from: http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/content/press_office/2016/2016_07_12_uruguay_factsheet.pdf.