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Brand placement on price boards after tobacco display bans: a point-of-sale audit in Melbourne, Australia
  1. Melanie Wakefield1,
  2. Meghan Zacher1,
  3. Michelle Scollo1,2,
  4. Sarah Durkin1
  1. 1Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria, Carlton, Victoria, Australia
  2. 2QUIT Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Professor Melanie Wakefield, Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria, 1 Rathdowne Street, Carlton Victoria 3053, Australia; melanie.wakefield{at}


Objective This study aims to explore how cigarette brands are arranged on boards listing tobacco products and/or prices following the 1 January 2011 ban on point-of-sale tobacco displays in Victoria, Australia.

Methods An audit undertaken in late 2011 gathered information on the prevalence and contents of tobacco product information displays (‘price boards’). We examined how often all or most of the brands listed at the top of price boards were owned by the same tobacco company, and whether premium, mainstream and value brands were listed in prominent positions more frequently in different store types and socio-economic areas (SES).

Results Of the 281 stores audited, 64% (179) had legible price boards. Of the 178 with factory-made products, 11% arranged brands alphabetically, 2% by price and 87% did so in some other way. In 65% of stores where brands were arranged in some other way, at least three of the top four positions were devoted to brands owned by the same tobacco company. Premium brands were given greater prominence than would be expected by market share. Neighbourhood SES was significantly related to the representation in the most prominent price board positions of brands from the most appropriate market segment.

Conclusions Price boards are being used to target brands to consumers. Jurisdictions should also prohibit price board display when they ban tobacco product display; prices might instead be itemised in alphabetical order on a list only viewable upon customer request.

  • Advertising and Promotion
  • Price
  • Public policy

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Historically, the tobacco industry has been agile in exploiting alternative strategies for promoting cigarette brands in the face of increasing marketing restrictions.1 As traditional forms of marketing have been banned, tobacco companies have increased brand prominence in displays of products at point-of-sale (POS).1–3 Achievement of prominence in the retail environment has been important not only because it creates interest in the brand and communicates associated imagery:4 ,5 it also suggests popularity (and by implication desirability) of the brand.1 ,5 ,6 Such displays are intended to contribute to both brand and category growth,5 ,7 as repeated exposure to cigarette displays establishes ‘friendly familiarity’ with tobacco. This gives the impression that smoking is socially acceptable and prevalent, and leads many consumers to underestimate the negative health effects of tobacco use.3 ,7 POS displays have also been shown to prompt unplanned purchases.8 ,9

To counter this form of retail promotion, a growing number of jurisdictions have banned the display of tobacco products at the POS.10 Several studies show that retailer compliance with these laws has been high.11–13 However, many jurisdictions with a tobacco product display ban still permit signage that lists brand names and prices of tobacco to customers.14 ,15 Though stripped of all brand-related imagery, price boards may still help brands achieve ‘presence’ through prominent placement. Just as tobacco companies pay retailers incentives for giving prominence to their brands in product displays,16–18 the same practice may occur with price boards. Market segment (ie, premium, mainstream, value) may also be a factor driving brand prominence on price boards, an issue that would be especially important for groups that are sensitive to price, such as young people and those of lower socio-economic status.19 However, to our knowledge, no studies have yet examined if these factors influence brand placement.

The Australian state of Victoria banned the display of tobacco products from 1 January 2011, also placing restrictions on the permitted size of tobacco product information signs (‘price boards’), and imposing a new requirement that if a price board is displayed, a graphic health warning sign must be displayed next to it.20 ,21 Following the implementation of the ban, instore tobacco promotions were limited to a single price board no larger than 1.5 m×1.5 m which can indicate what tobacco products are sold at the store and how much each product costs in a standard font (ie, no elements of branding are allowed), font size, and without any fluorescent colours or special lighting. An example of a compliant price board is depicted in figure 1.

Figure 1

Photograph of a compliant price board (Melbourne, July 2012). This figure is only reproduced in colour in the online version.

A previous study found good compliance with the display of price boards and accompanying graphic health warning signage.13 The present study aimed to uncover what brands of factory-made cigarettes were listed in the most prominent position at the top of price boards, and to assess factors associated with such placement, now that such boards are virtually the only form of brand promotion left in stores. We used brand placement at the top of price boards as the measure of prominence based on research showing choice preferences for listed items placed in this position.22–25

In Australia, three tobacco companies dominate the market for factory-made cigarettes. In 2011, British American Tobacco Australia (BATA) earned 42% of grocery cigarette sales by value, Philip Morris Australia (PMA) earned 40% and Imperial Tobacco Australia (ITA) earned 18%.26 Trends in the convenience sector in 2009–2010 were similar, with BATA earning 55% of the market share, PMA earning 32% and ITA earning 12%.27

Brands from the mainstream market segment made up the largest share of cigarettes bought in 2011 (52% in grocery stores by value).26 Value brands followed with 31% of grocery sales and premium brands earned the lowest grocery share by value, with 17% of sales. For more information on tobacco companies and brand share in Australia, see Tobacco in Australia: Facts and Issues.27



The store sample used for this study was originally generated for an audit that took place in late 2010.13 Stores were selected from 10 Statistical Local Areas (SLAs) that were reflective of Melbourne's socio-economic spread. Stores within each of these 10 SLAs were eligible if they fit the definition of one of five store types: convenience stores, milk bars (small, local/family-operated stores or shops specifically called ‘milk bar’, ‘corner store’ or ‘general store’), newsagents (stores selling newspapers/magazines as their primary business), petrol stations and supermarkets. Specialist tobacconists were excluded, as they were exempt from the POS display ban legislation.20 ,21 The electronic White and/or Yellow Pages was used to obtain lists of stores. Six stores of each type were randomly selected within each region, resulting in 300 selected stores in total. Three stores in each SLA were chosen as ‘back-ups’ and when insufficient samples were available, stores were drawn from a single adjoining SLA which was reflective of the socio-economic conditions found within the initially selected SLA.

Overall, 302 stores were audited in October/November 2010 (two extra stores were visited from the list of back-ups). Stores that were still open and selling tobacco were reaudited in November and December 2011 for the current study.

Procedure and measures

Eight trained observers attended selected stores and observed price board contents, maintaining anonymity by behaving like regular customers. When required, auditors purchased items to extend their time in the store, allowing them to remain inconspicuous. All information was recorded on paper when fieldworkers were out of view of store personnel, though they were permitted to unobtrusively use smartphones in the store to record information. Auditors recorded whether and how price or brand information was presented by noting presence of a discrete price board, use of stickers/tags stuck to a tobacco storage unit, or none visible. Fieldworkers could also indicate if prices/brands were illegible. Fieldworkers noted how cigarette brands were organised on price boards (alphabetically, by price, or in some other way). When brands were arranged in an ‘other’ way, the top four brands, or top two brands from each column if brands were listed in two columns, were noted.


The Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) Index of Disadvantage28 was used to assess area socio-economic status. Postcodes were used to compute SEIFA index scores (low-socio-economic areas (SES): 1st and 2nd quintiles; mid-SES 3rd and 4th quintiles; high-SES 5th quintile). Cigarettes were determined to be ‘premium’, ‘mainstream’ or ‘value’ according to categorisation by the Retail World trade magazine;26 brands which were not listed in Retail World were defined by their recommended price per stick.29 Poisson regressions modelled the count of premium, mainstream and value brands listed among the top four (or three, if no fourth brand was recorded) on price boards on store type and SES. Postestimation Wald tests examined whether the models found significant differences in counts between store types and SES areas.


Of the 302 stores originally audited in late 2010, 16 (5%) had stopped selling tobacco and another 5 (2%) had closed by late 2011, leaving 281 remaining stores eligible for the present audit. Of these 281 stores, 179 (64%) posted a price board with brand information legible to customers. Of the remainder, 65 (23%) posted no brand or price information, 34 (12%) posted information legible only to staff and 3 (1%) had missing information. Adjusting for SES, newsagents were less likely (29%) than any other store type (71%) to have a legible price board (p<0.001). Adjusting for store type, low-SES stores (53%) were less likely than mid-SES stores (70%) to post legible brand information (p=0.004). In high-SES areas, 62% of stores posted information legibly.

Cigarette brand arrangement

One of the 179 stores with legible price boards listed no factory-made cigarette brands, leaving 178 stores for analyses of brand arrangement. Factory-made cigarette brands were listed alphabetically in only 11% of the 178 stores and by price order in a further 2%. Most stores (n=154, 87%) listed items in some other way, and of these, at least three of the top four brands listed on the price board were recorded in 143 stores.

Half or more of the top three or four brands (ie, at least two) belonged to just one tobacco company in almost all stores where brands were not arranged alphabetically or by price (n=140 of 143, 98%). In 78 stores, half or more of the top brands were owned by BATA, compared with 55 stores for PMA and 24 for ITA. In 65% of stores (n=93 of 143), 75% or more of the top-listed brands (ie, at least three) belonged to the same company. Three-quarters or more of reported brands belonged to BATA in 43 stores, to PMA in 29 stores and to ITA in 21 stores.

On average, 53% of the top three or four brands listed on price boards were premium brands, while 20% were mainstream and 26% were value brands. Table 1 shows that the number of prominent price board positions occupied by premium brands differed significantly by store type, with the highest proportions in petrol stations and newsagents, and lowest in supermarkets and milk bars. Store type was unrelated to the number of mainstream brands, but was significant in the model predicting the number of value brands (which were highest in milk bars). Numbers of top price board positions given to premium brands differed significantly by SES, with much higher percentages found in mid- and high-SES areas than low-SES areas. Furthermore, the number of prominent positions occupied by value brands differed by SES, as stores in low-SES areas had more value brands listed in top positions than stores in mid- or high-SES areas. The number of mainstream brands did not differ significantly by SES.

Table 1

Average percentage of the top three or four brands listed on price boards from each market segment, by store type and SES, and postestimation Wald tests for difference in counts of each market segment, by store type and SES


Our study showed that almost a year after display ban implementation, 64% of stores displayed a price board listing brands of tobacco products. In such instances, the vast majority of these stores appeared to use a rule other than alphabetical order or price to organise brands. In over half of the stores where brands were not arranged alphabetically or by price, at least three-quarters of the top-listed brands belonged to the same tobacco company. This suggests that tobacco companies may be working with retailers to secure prominent price board positioning for the brands they hope to promote, in the same way they have done to ensure prime placement of brands in tobacco displays.17 ,18

The high percentage of prominent positions occupied by premium brands on price boards (53%)—including in many low-SES areas—was notable, given that the grocery market share of premium brands in Australia is only 16% by volume and far lower than that of mainstream or value brands.26 Only 22% of smokers smoked premium brands in Australia in 2010 (Ron Borland ITC study, personal communication, 2012, cited in Freeman10). Stores in low-SES areas tended to list more value brands near the top of their price boards than did stores in mid- and high-SES areas, which favoured more expensive premium brands. This pattern of brand placement suggests that, in addition to catering for local clientele, manufacturers and/or retailers may be attempting to maximise sales of premium brands which provide greater margins (profits) to manufacturers.30 Premium brands tend to convey more seductive (quality, sophisticated, stylish) imagery about smoking.31 ,32

A limitation of our study was that we did not formally measure inter-rater reliability. However, fieldworkers were carefully trained and monitored and they had successfully completed two previous rounds of POS data collection. Data collection tasks did not prove onerous. Also, our study was conducted in just one Australian capital city. Nonetheless, given the often-described ‘dark market’ in which the tobacco industry operates in Australia, our results may be instructive for nations considering display bans as part of their responsibilities in meeting Article 13 (tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship) of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.33

We conclude that price boards are likely functioning as a communicator of brand reputation and popularity, which undermines the intent of both state and federal legislation aiming to prevent all forms of promotion. Jurisdictions considering POS display bans need to frame legislation to include prohibition of price board display if their legislative framework permits it; if not, prices for brands should instead be itemised in alphabetical order on a list only viewable upon customer request.34

What is already known on this subject

  • A growing number of jurisdictions have banned display of tobacco products at the point-of-sale, but still permit display of signage that lists the prices of tobacco brands.

  • We studied whether price boards may be used to achieve brand ‘presence’ through prominent placement at the top of the price list.

What this paper adds

  • Using an observational audit of 281 tobacco retail outlets, we found that brands listed at the top of the price board were over-represented by premium brands, were more frequently owned by the same tobacco company and more likely to reflect the brand segment smoked by the socio-economic status of the store neighbourhood.

  • Price boards are being used to target tobacco brands to consumers, suggesting that a ban on display of price boards should be included in tobacco product display bans.



  • Contributors MW and MS codesigned the study, MZ coordinated fieldwork and undertook data analysis, and SD supervised these study phases. All authors contributed to manuscript writing and revisions and approved the final version of the paper.

  • Funding This study was supported by Cancer Council Victoria and Quit Victoria.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval This study was exempt from ethical review since it was observation only.

  • Data sharing statement There is no unpublished data able to be shared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.