Impact of plain packaging tobacco on consumer behaviour


Australia is the only country in the world (yet) to enforce the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act. As a number of other countries are on the verge of implementing this act too or passing it to a vote[i], an interesting and important rising question is if plain packaging of tobacco products influences the consumer behaviour for smoking tobacco products in Australia?

The Tobacco Plain Packaging Act is enforced in Australia since 1 December 2012. It standardised the appearance of all tobacco packs, which includes the colour of the pack. The Act is established to discourage the use of tobacco products, and reduce the ability of the retail packaging of tobacco products to mislead consumers about the harmful effects of smoking or using tobacco products. In order to accomplish the attempts, the Act reduces the appeal of tobacco products to consumers and increases the effectiveness of health warnings on the retail packaging of tobacco products[ii].

Before the establishments of Plain Packaging Act, the government has resisted any forms of marketing campaigns in relations to tobacco. Hence, tobacco industry analysts have demonstrated that the utility of tobacco packaging differentiation is an essential marketing tool. Therefore, the government believes that the Act can be effective to diminish the smoking population in Australia.

Did the lack of marketing tools for the tobacco industry lead to a decrease in smoking population or health awareness succeeds at preventing smokers during the past three years in Australia?

A study done in Australia throughout November 2012, examined the attitudes and intentions of smokers during this period, comparing those who were smoking cigarettes from the new plain packs with larger health warnings (these were already in the shops), with those still smoking from a branded pack with smaller warnings. This study indicated that plain packaging is associated with lower smoking appeal and more urgency to quit among adult smokers[v].

The results from a study done by National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), with a nationally representative sample (N=23,855) of the Australian population aged 12 years and older, show where there have been changes in smoking behaviours in Australia, including prevalence, between 2010 and 2013. The people that were reported to smoke decreased from 18.1% to 15.8%, with a decrease in smoking daily from 15.1% to 12.8%. Furthermore the weekly consumption of cigarettes dropped from 111 cigarettes to 96 cigarettes, and there was an increase in average age of initiation from 15.4 years to 15.9 years and never smoking from 57.8% to 60.1%[iii].

Overall, these numbers point out that the Plain Packaging Act, still at its early living phase, is working success to discourage the use of tobacco products by the Australian people[iv].

I think it is an effective way of preventing people from taking up the smoking habit and to change people’s smoking behaviour, however the tobacco companies are left without options to differentiate themselves from one another using marketing. What do you think is the best way to change consumer behaviour? What will be the next step, should we start doing this for all unhealthy products?


Author: Hidde Postma

Viewed by: Junhong Zhang




[iii] Australian Institute for Health and Welfare. 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report 2013. Drug statistics series No. 28. Cat. No. PHE 183, Canberra: AIHW, 2014.




18 thoughts on “Impact of plain packaging tobacco on consumer behaviour

  1. I watched a segment on a recent episode of “Last Week Tonight” about the plain packaging laws, and the large tobacco companies have sued every country that’s attempted to reform the packaging laws – they sued the Australian Government recently and lost. Go Aussie!

    It’s interesting to me however the picking and choosing of what unhealthy products are monitored and banned. Solariums for example cause cancer, as does smoking. So why were solariums banned and cigarettes not? I don’t understand the difference (beside the government being able to profit from it of course).

    I’m not a smoker so it’s difficult for me to comment on how these reforms have affected me, but the stats definitely show a significant change in consumer behavior from the change in marketing and lack of differentiation. I imagine though that teens and younger adults would be less inclined to start smoking now that they don’t have a selection to browse from, how would they know what to ask for?


  2. I think personally that if companies are selling ‘legal’ products in which the health impacts are widely recognised as detrimental or in the instance of cigarettes that can in fact kill you, if appropriate warnings are depicted on the products packaging as well as their effects being reinforced excessively by health advocates in the media, then marketing freedoms should be afforded to those companies to have the benefit of being able to differentiate their products from competitors products through the medium of packaging. Like most people I think that any product deemed as risky if consumed as it is intended to be should clearly carry the appropriate warning labels, be it cigarettes negative health effects, the amount of calories in a Big Mac or the impact of excessive Red Bull consumption……however removing the Trade Marks off legal products completely seems excessive despite the government’s perceived benefit in this example.


  3. Interesting article. It still amazes me that smokes are the only legal product that kills when used as intended by the manufacturer. Anecdotally, it seems to me that the move towards plain packaging in Australia has been effective and definitely plays a part in reducing smoking figures. Being based in Canada, I notice the difference in attitudes between the two countries and the comparatively high number of people still smoking. Although Canada was the first country to implement picture based warnings, they still have the branded packaging. I agree with the commenter above, not knowing what to ask for is surely a huge deterrent to younger people.


  4. As an ex-smoker I must say that the plain packaging did have an effect on my tobacco consumption, although the more contributing factor for me personally was the increase in taxes and prices of tobacco products!

    I find it a bit strange that despite the many anti smoking campaigns, the costs of nicotine replacement therapies in Australia is almost as high as the tobacco products themselves! The price of Nicotine gums for instance is almost the same as the price of cigarettes, which could potentially lead to little encouragement to accept such substitutions.


  5. Interesting article, thanks for posting. I have to agree with sniknafs2015 and say that the increased prices and taxes on tobacco products is surely having a bigger impact on consumer behaviour, rather than the plain packaging.

    With the increase in campaigns that being awareness to the dangers of smoking ( specifically targeting different segments), the social acceptance of smoking continuing to diminish, the increased prices, and the Australian populations increased focus on health and lifestyle….I have to wonder how much impact the plain packaging actually had?


  6. Very interesting read. I have to agree with the comments above and also wonder what the major factor is in the reduced rates of smoking. I would also hazard a guess that the cost of smoking, bans on smoking in public places, health awareness and what I believe is a negative perception of smokers in general has played a bigger role in the reduced rates. I do imagine that plain packaging has played a part but not so sure how big.


  7. Great article and great responses, you have certainly tapped into an interesting topic. Clearly governments are trying to marginalise cigarettes as it is probably not politically possible to make them illegal similar to other drugs such as heroin or ice. I suppose this is due to the fact that smoking was legalised long before anyone knew of the health dangers involved. I think that the plain packaging is another tool in the toolkit to marginalise cigarettes.


  8. Fantastic Article….
    To reduce it more people have to take initiative then only we will be successful in reducing all such things. we should try to ban tobacco products and should not promote it to higher extent.
    As the tobacco industry is no longer permitted to market their products using traditional marketing media in France, tobacco packaging has grown in importance as a promotional tool. According to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), plain tobacco packaging may help reduce the promotional appeal of tobacco product. To investigate this, 540 people (15-25 years) in France were randomly exposed to one of four Marlboro packs (branded pack or white, grey or brown plain pack) and asked about pack and product appeal (attractiveness, quality, taste), purchase interest and the most salient feature of the pack. Results highlight that the three plain packs were found to significantly reduce the appeal of the pack and product, purchase interest, and increase the salience of the health warning. Significant differences were found between the three plain packs : the white and grey packs were perceived to contain lighter tasting cigarettes compared to the brown pack and the grey pack increased motivation to purchase the pack. The findings are consistent with past research, even using multiple plain packs, and suggest that plain packaging would function as a meaningful extension of existing marketing bans in France and indeed across Europe. The study also suggests that white or light grey are unsuitable colours for plain packaging because respondents consider it contains light cigarettes. Brown is the most suitable colour for detracting young people from tobacco, with probably a better negative impact with a darker hue of the brown colour.


  9. I work in a small supermarket, and as part of my job i have to sell cigarettes.
    When the packaging changes were enforced it was a giant nuisance (and still is) for employees to be able to quickly and efficiently find the correct cigarette package to give to the customer- as it makes differentiating between brands and types very difficult.
    These new packages also have pictures intended to put the smoker off- in some cases i think that these have worked- i have served many customers who request not to have the “dead man” or the “gross fingers” on the cigarettes they buy, and request to be given a different package with a different picture.

    It is also worth noting that alongside this packaging change the government introduced a scheme to rise prices on cigarettes (i think it was 25% over a few years?). The prices are still gradually rising on the packages- and although customers complain about these changes, they still just as regularly come to buy their cigarettes.

    I think these changes are an inconvenience to the buyer- but an inconvenience they are willing to put up with. It comes down to how much you want the product. For serious smokers, giving up is not an option in their minds. I think the same could be said for those who are regular indulgers in fast food, or soft drinks. If they want the product, they will make the purchase regardless of packaging appearance or price.


  10. This is an interesting topic. In my opinion, the small change in perception will promote a greater change in the future. We can see that the effect of the plain packaging tobacco has helped significantly reduce the number of smokers and age of people exposed to smoker. However, to make a big change from smokers to non-smokers is a long process. This change must come from the cognitive want to give up before the marketing campaign. When the smoker wants to become non-smoker, he would be affected by advertising campaign. The advertising campaign is to help those who want to quit more motivated acts they perform. In fact, after a series of campaigns by the government to reduce the number of smokers as: smoking area and prevent tobacco advertising, which has impacted significantly on the number of smokers. These constant changes have an impact on consumer behaviour. Due to great impact of plain packing tobacco to the customer’s attitude, Australia tobacco companies have accelerated the campaign against this policy. Because of this change will be a major impact on consumer behaviour and the tobacco companies do not dare to accept it. I just wonder how unhealthy product look like in another plain packing campaign.


  11. Thank you for the great comments. It is true that it’s hard to put a number on the amount of people who gave up or decreased smoking, as aside from plain packaging, other relevant tobacco control measures were introduced as well. From 2010 a mass-media campaign was held, which accompanied the initial implementation of plain packaging, and a large (25%) increase in sales tax. Thus these are probably also relevant factors in the decline of tobacco consumption. Although the numbers in the articles described above definitely point to a change in consumer behaviour.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hey everyone,
    very interesting article! At first I have to say that unfortunately I’m a smoker. I’m from Germany and moved to Melbourne in January. And I have to say that my smoking behaviour changed since I’m here. The first reason is that in Germany cigarettes are about $12 cheaper than in Australia. So you just have to pay about $7 per package. Another reason is the plain packaging. Since some years I smoke the same tobacco brand. I think it’s because smokers have a strong brand loyalty to their “favourite tobacco brand”. Maybe for non-smokers it sounds crazy but it’s really like that. So when you can’t see the logo or something else of your brand you don’t feel as loyal to it. Another point that shocked me about Australian cigarette packages were the horrible photos of sick people which always give me a very bad feeling when I decide to smoke a cigarette. Consequently since I moved to Australia I don’t care which cigarettes I buy (usually the cheapest ones :-)) and I reduced smoking. Thus, I think plain packaging of tobacco products influences the consumer behaviour for smoking tobacco products in Australia. I hope when I move back to Germany, I will be a non-smoker 🙂
    And yes, plain packaging could be a good idea for other unhealthy proucts, such as fast food or alcohol!


  13. Hi Teresa Z!
    Great article on a topic that interests everyone! i would not deny that packaging may have an impact on a beginner who is hesitant but still wants to foray in this unhealthy habit but long term smokers and chain smokers do not bother about the packging. Worldwide various methods have been used from using plain packaging to printing harrowing pictures of cancer afflicted lungs to discourage this habit to no avail. What generally works is increasing the taxes and price of cigarettes. Still I would say that even if a change in packaging can bring about the behavioural change even in a fraction of smokers it would not be a wasted effort.


  14. Great article!
    I would say that tobacco companies are facing a really tough time during these days, since there are many factors changing their market. During last years, tobacco companies have had to deal with legal regulations that not only impact their package but their distribution channels and consumers. We have seen the evolution from availability of smoke zones to smoke free environment in different places (restaurants, universities, etc.), not to mention the increase in cigarettes prices, and the restriction to do marketing of this product.
    I believe changes in the package are helping in the reduction of cigarettes consumption, however all the restrictions and policies that are included in this strategy are giving an extra help in this results.
    With the new ´healthy wave´ that is increasing every day, for sure we are going to see more of this in other products.


  15. Great post. Really difficult to say if the “plain packaging” should be applied to all unhealthy products – although the McDonald’s package did bring a wry smile. I guess the government have applied plain packaging to cigarettes not only because they have been proven to be unhealthy and the health consequences of a life time of smoking are costly to the health care services – and hence the tax payers who provide the health care funding. Cigarettes are also incredibly addictive – making it harder to give them up. Harder to say that about a Big Mac – although I have no doubt there would be those who would claim to be addicted 🙂 not me though.

    The trending down of those who are smoking is a good sign. It points to a health intervention that may be paying dividends. It also points to the power of the “branding” that product packaging has on consumer choice. I can recall my smoking days and thinking that the St Moritz brand being sexy and cool – clearly I have grown up since then – I now don’t think smoking is sexy and cool at all. If plain packaging can deter the younger people from taking up the habit it’s a good thing. I’m sure the graphic photos on today’s cigarette packages would have presented a challenge to me to want to start and hopefully it does on today’s youth.

    What an impact on a whole industry though! Can you imagine the outcry – not to mention law suits – from companies like McDonald’s if plain packaging or graphic photos was imposed on them? It would be hard to know where to draw the line though I think. Foods aren’t generally addictive no matter what people like to think, and foods in themselves aren’t necessarily unhealthy – consumed in moderation. I guess that is where the cigarettes lost out on any argument they might have presented – there is no “moderation” of consumption and being addictive that tends to increase consumption whether it is willed or not. Plain packaging applied to foods may not have the same effect if it is enforced on a wide range of different items. But then again – who knows – people choose brands now because of packaging and avoid the “home brands”.


  16. Fantastic choice of topic!

    Fortunately, Australia was able to beat the lawsuits posed by the Tobacco companies (puts into question the authority of organizations over national sovereignty, considering they’re able to sue whole nations – see Last Week Tonight w John Oliver’s segment! But that’s a conversation for a different topic) and enacted plain packaging in 2012.

    Since then, there has been studies that have shown how successful the plain packaging campaign has been (which in turn, means that consumer behavior towards tobacco has changed, resulting in a decrease in popularity and sales).

    The impact of such laws has seen a dramatic outcome in regards to internally within Australia and externally. Countries are attempting to follow suit (both small scale – i.e. Uruguay – and large scale – i.e. United Kingdom and Ireland) which has seen similar inflammatory reactions from Tobacco Companies attempting to sue like they did with Australia in 2010.

    Application of plain packaging to fast food, as suggested in this article however, is probably not the same as application to Tobacco due to several reasons. The appeal in fast food, i.e. McDonalds, derives from the appeal in cost (cheap, quick and easy) and appeal of the product itself – advertized through TV ads or highly photoshopped displays whilst completely circumventing the unhealthy aspect of eating too much of it. Should a deterrent for fast food be developed, it should aim to target its key appealing aspects.

    Tobacco, on the other hand, has exclusive factors as to why it has such a large customer base. It’s inherent addictive characteristic paired with a long standing culture of “cool” (thanks media & french films) forms the base of its sales. Eliminating the latter factor by not only plainly packaging the product but including repulsive, reality-checking images acts as a visual deterrent for those who associate it with said latter factor.

    The former characteristic of tobacco, on the other hand, is a tougher aspect to confront. However has been dealt with exceptionally by Australia’s government through multiple R&D projects aimed at developing products to help block receptors that trigger nicotine cravings. In addition, as an individual who has been smoking for approximately 3 years, I have not been particularly warded off by the graphic images. What has deterred my smoking habit, however, is the strategically placed tax upon these products – ordained by the government so Tobacco companies aren’t seeing their profit margins increased but rather, the governments are raking in more money for tobacco bought. As a result, using myself as empirical evidence, the raised costs have resulted in me avoiding tobacco purchases as it is costing myself, a consumer, much more money than it did prior to such laws. As far as tobacco companies are concerned, this method of raising costs is out of their jurisdiction.


    John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight Tobacco Segment –


  17. This is a interested article. I believe that tobacco products are only suitable for adult consumers and do not want children to smoke. Plain packaging of tobacco products will be effective in discouraging young people to smoke, encouraging existing smokers to quit or increasing the effectiveness of health warnings. Every consumer goods. manufacturer knows that packaging and price are front and centre of the appeal of products. Plain packaging on tobacco products is associated with lower smoking appeal, greater support for the policy and a higher urgency to quit among adult smokers.


  18. I currently work in the smoking cessation market with some insight into the smoking rates and the impact of packaging. To date Australia has the lowest smoking rate (% per capita) compared to the rest of the world whereby China and Germany lead the world in highest rate of smokers. Interestingly, though the number of smokers have dropped, rural areas hold the highest number. When asked about the packaging they were indifferent to whether the pack details were exposed or hidden ie they became immune to the medical imagery or didn’t sway their brand preference. Research suggested that the images were not a deterrent, regardless of the health complications associated with smoking, they preferred to have their ‘fix’ and enjoy their day to day exposure to nicotine even though it may potentially shorten their lifespans


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