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The impact of structural packaging design on young adult smokers' perceptions of tobacco products
  1. Ron Borland1,
  2. Steven Savvas1,
  3. Fiona Sharkie1,
  4. Karen Moore2
  1. 1VicHealth Centre for Tobacco Control, The Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  2. 2Department of Epidemiology & Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Ron Borland, VicHealth Centre for Tobacco Control, The Cancer Council Victoria, 1 Rathdowne Street, Carlton, Melbourne, VIC 3053, Australia; ron.borland{at}


Objectives To examine the extent that novel cigarette pack shapes and openings have on smokers' perceptions of those packs and the cigarettes contained within.

Method Using a web-based survey, 160 young adult ever-smokers (18–29 years) were shown computer images of plain packaged cigarette packs in five different shapes. This was followed by packs illustrating five different methods of opening. Brand (prestige or budget) and size of the health warnings (30% or 70% warning size) were between-subject conditions. Respondents ranked packs on attractiveness, perceived quality of the cigarettes contained within and extent that the pack distracted from health warnings.

Results Ratings of attractiveness and perceived quality were significantly associated in both substudies, but tendency to distract from warnings was more independent. Significant differences were found between the pack shapes on attractiveness, perceived quality and distraction from warnings. Standard, 2×10 and 4×5 packs were ranked less attractive than Bevelled and Rounded packs. 2×10 and 4×5 packs were also perceived as lower quality than Bevelled and Rounded packs. The Standard pack was less distracting to health warnings than all other shapes except the 2×10 pack. Pack openings were perceived as different on quality of cigarettes contained and extent of distraction to warnings. The Standard Flip-top was rated significantly lower in distracting from warnings than all other openings.

Conclusions Pack shape and pack opening affect ever-smokers' perceptions of the packs and the cigarettes they contain. This means that they have the potential to create appeal and differentiate products and thus should be regulated.

  • Tobacco
  • plain packaging
  • branding
  • structural design
  • public policy
  • environmental tobacco smoke
  • cessation
  • packaging and labelling
  • endgame
  • addiction

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Cigarette packaging performs both a functional and marketing role.1 Packs are designed for utility: ease of use, maintaining freshness and to contain and protect a required number of cigarettes. Promotional considerations such as novelty and design are also used to brand cigarette packs to attract customers.2–4 Because tobacco is a relatively homogeneous market5 with little functional difference between cigarette products, branding is strategically important as the predominant means of product differentiation. Pack designs are created to facilitate the adding of value to brands, primarily through the use of imagery and association.2 Things like pack opening, size, shape and graphic design are aimed at communicating to the market the type of customer that you imagine would smoke a certain brand. For example, Philip Morris introduced the flip-top hard pack in the 1950s as an aid in re-branding the Marlboro image and their filtered cigarettes for a more ‘rugged masculine’ smoker.6 Now with tightening tobacco regulations, cigarette packaging has also increasingly been used to infer the attributes that customers can expect from the cigarette itself.

As the tobacco pack itself has become the main source of promotion for tobacco companies,3 design features such as the attractiveness of the pack are paid considerable attention.7 Most smokers carry a pack with them at all times, often leaving it sitting on surfaces near where they are smoking (eg, on café tables). They also need to take out their pack, thus displaying it, each time they smoke. This creates the context for the pack to be an important communication tool: that the person is a smoker and through the association with the brand, something about the kind of person they are. Consequently, the cigarette pack itself plays a critical role when more traditional forms of advertising have been prohibited.4

In addition to promoting the brand image, pack design may also reduce the impact of the health warnings on packs. For example, pack colouring and novel pack shapes have been used to reduce the visibility of health warnings.8 ,9 The use of colour in pack design is also used to convey misleading messages about the quality and relative harmfulness of the cigarettes they hold.10 This illustrates the phenomenon of ‘sensory transfer’,11 ,12 where design choice influences the sensory perception of smokers. The effect of ‘sensory transfer’ in relation to tobacco packaging was shown in a number of brand imagery studies conducted by Imperial Tobacco.12 Panel tasters masked to the brand of cigarette they smoked rated the sticks differently than when unmasked, on such characteristics as impact, mouth and throat effects.13

To date, a number of studies have investigated plain packaging in relation to the removal of colour, branding and logos14–16. The progressive removal of brand components from the pack results in increasingly unfavourable perceptions about the product, the type of people who would smoke the product and the experience gained from smoking the product,14 ,15 and experimental studies of using plain packs result in more negative perceptions of smoking and increased quit-related activity.16 Plain packaging has also been found to improve the recall of health warnings.5 ,17

In response to the National Preventative Health Taskforce recommendations,18 the Australian government's Plain Packaging Bill 201119 ,20 mandates that all cigarettes be sold in plain packs from 1 December 2012. The legislation requires the removal of logos, brand imagery, colours and promotional text, requires that all non-warning elements of the pack be a uniform dull olive-brown colour and regulates structural aspects of the pack, requiring that packs be rectangular with a flip-top opening.20 The legislation is aimed at reducing the take-up and continued consumption of tobacco, enhance the effectiveness of package warnings, remove the package's ability to mislead consumers and reduce the promotional appeal of packaging and product. The Bill also regulates how brand names and other allowed information on the pack are displayed. These new packaging requirements will constrain the ability of companies to add value to their brands with attractive imagery, although they will still be able to trade on imagery that people remember about brands on the market before the changes and continue to use connotations of the brand names themselves.

As noted above, packs will be mandated to be flip-top boxes of a rectangular shape. Virtually, all cigarettes currently purchased in Australia have flip-top openings.21 Some more expensive brands and promotional versions of some brands (ie, special short-term modifications) have or have had a range of other openings. Most packs are rectangular, although a small number of typically more expensive brands, or brands that primarily target women, have variants on this design. Examples include packs with Rounded (eg, Alpine) or Bevelled edges (eg, Pall Mall).

To our knowledge, there have been no experimental studies independent of the tobacco industry detailing the impact of pack shape and method of opening on consumers' perceptions of product quality or attractiveness or whether they distract attention from the health warnings.


The aim of this study was to identify young Australian adult smokers' perceptions of different pack designs and the cigarettes contained in those packs. In particular, whether novel pack shapes and openings affected ratings of pack attractiveness, the perceived quality of the cigarettes within them and the degree of distraction from the health warnings. We also assessed whether the size of the health warning and prestige or budget brand labelling affected evaluations.



Hundred and sixty adults (80 men and 80 women) completed the survey. Table 1 shows the demographic breakdown of the sample. Age ranged from 18 to 29 years, with the median at 25 years. Almost 80% of respondents were current smokers.

Table 1

Demographic and smoking characteristics of participants


The study used a 5 (pack design) ×2 (brand: Benson & Hedges, a prestige brand vs Longbeach, a discount brand) ×2 (health warning size: 30%, the current size, vs 70%, something like what was being advocated for) experimental design with pack design within subjects and brand and health warning between subjects. Two substudies were conducted with different pack designs: first pack shapes followed by pack openings. Respondents were shown real size computer-generated static images of five pack shapes (order randomised) and made their ratings of them (figure 1). This was followed by short video clips of five different methods of pack openings which showed the packs opening, followed by static images of partly opened packs (again in randomised order) used when rating the packs (figure 2).

Figure 1

Pack shapes (with 30% warnings) from left to right: Standard, 2×10, 4×5, Bevelled edges and Rounded edges.

Figure 2

Pack openings (with 70% warnings) from left to right: Standard flip-top, Rotate, Slide, Case opening and Side-flip.

Stimulus characteristics

All packs used in both substudies were packs of 20 cigarettes. The five pack shapes (see figure 1) were the Standard pack (7-6-7 organisation of the cigarettes), a wider and thinner shape (2×10 pack), a squarer and fatter shape (4×5 pack), a Bevelled edged, and a Rounded pack shape (both with the same basic shape as the Standard pack). For the pack opening substudy, the packs were (figure 2) the Standard flip-top, a flip opening from the base (Rotate), a slide out mechanism (Slide), a Case opening and a side opening flip-top (Side-Flip), sometimes called a Lighter pack.3

All packs were designed to simulate as far as possible the expected design features permitted under the proposed Australian plain packaging legislation (not known at the time of the study). All packs were a standard beige colour (the Australia government subsequently proposed a dark olive-brown), with standard font for the brand, the descriptor name (eg, Fine) and the number of cigarettes. This study used a 10-point font, whereas the proposed legislation uses a 16-point font for the Brand and 14 point for the variant descriptor (not used here). Also the proposal is for 75% of the front to be covered by the health warning, marginally greater than the 70% warning tested here. All packs used the same graphic health warning on the face of the pack (‘Smoking causes peripheral Vascular disease’, with the current picture redesigned for the 70% warnings (see figure 2)).


While viewing the packs, the respondents ranked them for perceived attractiveness, quality of the cigarettes contained and distraction from the health warning on the pack. Rankings were from 1 (least) to 5 (most) on each characteristic. Respondents were then asked if they had ever bought cigarettes with any of the novel shapes and which pack shape they preferred most and least.


The survey was conducted on the internet by a registered market research company (the Social Research Centre). Respondents were drawn from a national panel of previously identified smokers from the company's database. For participating, respondents were awarded credits as part of a redemption scheme devised by the market research company. Ethical approval was obtained from the Cancer Council Victoria Internal Research Review Committee as a minimal risk project.

Statistical analysis

Data analysis was conducted using SPSS V.18.0. Repeated measures analysis of variance was used to test for mean differences between pack shapes/openings and to identify interactions with brand or health warnings. We used Spearman's ρ for correlations. Post hoc tests used Bonferroni corrections for multiple comparisons. We used a significance level of 0.05 throughout but note that within-subject power to find effects was greater than for the between-subjects effects.

Overall means for pack preferences were calculated where ratings were only of most and least by scoring 5 points for each most preferred, 1 point for least preferred and scoring all other cases 3 points.


Pack shape

A majority of respondents (69.4%) reported that they had purchased a non-Standard pack shape: 43.1% the 2×10 pack, 16.9% the 4×5 pack, 20.6% the Bevelled pack and 32.5% the Rounded pack. The effect of non-Standard pack shape purchase history on sample response was investigated. Respondents who had previously bought the 2×10 pack shape were more likely to rate the quality of cigarettes for this shape higher than those that had not previously bought this shape (p=0.019).

Ratings of attractiveness and perceived quality of cigarettes for all pack shapes were moderately correlated at p<0.01 (correlations ranged from ρ=0.32 (2×10 pack) to ρ=0.54 (4×5 pack)). Table 2 shows the means and SEs for reactions to each of the five pack shapes. Repeated measures analysis of variance of pack shape × warning size × branding showed main effects between the pack shapes on attractiveness (F (3.7)=17.49, p<0.001) and quality (F (3.6)=9.80, p<0.001), with no significant interactions. The Rounded pack was rated the most attractive and the one with the highest quality of cigarettes, while the 2×10 and 4×5 packs were rated approximately equal least on attractiveness and equal lowest on quality of cigarette. The Rounded pack was rated as more attractive and higher in quality than the 2×10, the 4×5 and the Standard packs (all p values <0.001). The Bevelled pack was significantly more attractive (p=0.015) than the Standard pack, more attractive (p<0.001) and higher quality (p=0.003) than the 2×10 pack and more attractive (p<0.001) and higher quality (p=0.001) than the 4×5 pack.

Table 2

Pack shape and attractiveness, quality and distracts from warning means

Ratings of distraction from health warnings were generally unrelated to either attractiveness or quality (ρ>0.05 for all pack shapes except attractiveness and distraction which were weakly correlated for the 4×5 pack shape (ρ=0.16, p=0.043)). In the repeated measures analysis, there was a main effect among the pack shapes for distracts most from health warning (F (3.3)=5.50, p=0.001). The Standard pack shape was rated as least distracting from health warnings (mean=2.54) and was significantly lower in distraction compared with the 4×5 (p=0.001), Bevelled (p<0.001) and Rounded packs (p=0.030). There was also a significant interaction effect for pack shape × warning size (F (3.3)=2.71, p=0.038), with the 4×5 pack, in particular, more distracting with a smaller rather than larger warning size. The Standard pack remained least distracting under both conditions.

In a separate question, participants were asked to select the pack shape they would most and least prefer their cigarettes to come in regardless of price (table 2). The most preferred packs were the Bevelled and Rounded packs with the Standard pack preferred by 20% of participants. The least preferred packs were the wider (2×10 pack) and squarer (4×5 pack) shapes.

Pack openings

Only a minority of participants (18.1%) reported ever purchasing a pack with a non-Standard pack opening (Standard flip-top). The effect of having previously purchased any of the non-Standard openings on participants' responses to attractiveness, quality and distraction from warning messages was investigated. No significant associations were identified (at p<0.05).

Similar to pack shape, ratings of attractiveness and quality for all pack openings were moderately to strongly correlated at p<0.01 (correlations ranging from ρ=0.48 (Case opening) to ρ=0.60 (Standard flip-top)). There was also some evidence of weak correlations for distracts from warnings and attractiveness or quality (five correlations: all ρ≤0.18, p<0.05).

Table 3 shows the mean and SEs for the five pack openings. Separate repeated measures analyses were conducted for the three main ratings. There were no significant main effects for attractiveness among the pack openings (F (3.5)=0.94, p=0.431), but there were main effects for quality of cigarette (F (3.4)=2.74, p=0.036) and distract most from warnings (F (3.4)=14.90, p<0.001). There were no significant interaction effects. Post hoc tests showed that the Standard flip-top was rated lower in perceived quality compared with the Slide opening style (p=0.044). There was a clear difference in ratings on tendency to distract from warnings with the Standard flip-top opening rated as least distracting (mean=2.23) and significantly lower than all other pack opening styles (all p<0.001).

Table 3

Pack openings and attractiveness, quality and distracts from warning means

Participants were also asked to select the pack opening they would most and least prefer their cigarettes to come in regardless of price (table 3). The most preferred opening was the Standard flip-top, and the least preferred was the Case opening.


The results of this study demonstrate that pack shape and opening design can influence the perceptions that smokers and ex-smokers have of the cigarette pack and cigarette sticks contained within. Young adult ever-smokers find certain pack shapes more appealing in terms of attractiveness. In particular, the squarer packs (Standard, 2×10 and 4×5 shapes) were seen as least attractive, possibly reflecting their bulkier form. The Bevelled and Rounded pack shapes were seen as most attractive. However, there were no discernable differences in overall attractiveness among the five pack openings. This could be because different pack openings (apart from Standard flip-top) are not commonly purchased in Australia, while smokers have more experience with different pack shapes.

Smokers were found to differentiate the quality of the cigarettes contained within a pack on pack shape and opening design. In particular, the unusual (to them) rectangular packs (2×10 and 4×5 packs) were seen as containing cigarettes of lower quality than the augmented rectangular Bevelled and Rounded packs. With pack openings, the Slide design was seen as containing cigarettes of higher quality than the Standard flip-top (the dominant Australian design).

It is particularly notable that there were moderate to strong correlations between attractiveness and quality for each pack shape and opening, providing evidence that perception of the characteristics of the pack are generalised to characteristics of the cigarettes they contain. As we only showed respondents pictures of the packs and not of the cigarettes, we think it much more likely there is a causal link from pack to cigarettes than the converse or for some intermediary cause of the association. This finding also shows that the pattern of responding did not reflect random responding among the novel openings, rather variation in respondent preferences. Thus, while there is little preference beyond the current dominant opening, subgroups clearly have different preferences, and these could be used as the basis of targeted marketing.

This study also provides evidence that pack shape and opening can affect the prominence of health warnings on the packs. The 4×5 and Bevelled shapes were seen as the designs most distracting to warnings. The Standard pack shape was markedly less distracting to warnings than all other designs except the 2×10 shape. A similar pattern was observed with pack openings. Here, the Standard flip-top was less distracting to warnings than all other pack opening styles. In this regard, it should be noted that the health warnings were designed around the flip-top design, with effectively all the warning on the top part at 30% coverage and the warning design split at the opening for the 70% warning. It is likely that if the flip-top opening split a design element that this would have resulted in this design being seen as more distracting.

There was some evidence that warning size affected attractiveness and distraction ratings, with greater effects of the pack characteristics when the warning labels were smaller, although effects were still present. In this study, brand (either prestige or budget) played a minimal role in the attractiveness, quality or distraction ratings. As branding in this study was illustrated only by changing the labelling on the front of the packs and this was in a very small font and may have not been noticed, it may be that any branding effects were overshadowed by more obvious differences in pack shape and opening. There would be benefit in repeating this study with the brand name and variant information as prominent as it will be in the final packaging regulations.

This study has a number of limitations. The packs were artist impressions not photographs of real packs and they were shown on the internet, so respondents could only see what the images or brief videos showed. It is possible that the results would be different if real packs could be handled. This might be a particular problem for ratings of distraction from the warnings where the pictures of the openings distorted some of the warnings. One possible general effect of using artist's designs would be to reduce the differentiation of the products over what would occur with real packs, where other factors like quality of manufacture could affect ratings. This possibility informed our choice of method. The novelty of the shapes and/or openings may also have contributed to them being rated as less attractive and generally more distracting. This would help to explain why the 2×10 pack was not rated the pack shape that distracts least from warnings, even though it has the largest (widest) warning. Notable here is that it was rated as marginally less attractive when the warning was larger. These limitations mean that caution should be taken in drawing conclusions about the absolute magnitude of effects and whether specific shapes and/or openings are inherently more or less attractive etc. As the study was designed to primarily investigate whether different pack shapes and openings could elicit different ratings of attractiveness etc. and not to determine the exact magnitude of those ratings, the conclusion that features of pack shape and opening can affect ratings is not threatened by these limitations.

The study has a number of important strengths. First, we surveyed younger smokers and ex-smokers (aged 18–29 years), a group at an age typically more brand conscious.22 As such, they may be more affected by the characteristics we explored than older and more dependent smokers. Research has shown that brand loyalty to a cigarette brand, once fostered, is hard to break.23 ,24 While this study focused on the impact on young adults, it does mean it should not be generalised to the possible reactions of older smokers and ex-smokers. Second, the use of a within-subject design to explore key comparisons means that the study has considerable power, even with the relatively small sample size.

While on the surface one might conclude that even though the Standard flip-top opening was the least likely to distract from the health warnings, it was also rated as the most desirable and thus should be considered for removal; we do not believe that we have made a case for this as it is the normative opening and that factor may have influenced the ratings, rather than any inherent quality of the opening. This suggests that although there could be an initial benefit of adopting a different opening to reduce product desirability, we think such effects would likely be temporary and thus hard to justify given the cost and complexity of forcing virtually all packs to be redesigned and the negative short-term, at least, effects on warning prominence. We think it is more important to standardise and do so with designs that are not overly designed to make the pack look better than it needs be. If tobacco companies were allowed to vary these elements of pack design, we would be surprised if they were not used, at least to differentiate some brands and thus form the basis of a marketing strategy.

In conclusion, Australian tobacco regulations seek to limit tobacco advertising. Branding, a powerful marketing tool, aims to differentiate one product from another. The results from this study show that pack shapes and openings can have effects on smokers' ratings of packs and the attributes of cigarettes contained within and thus such structural design changes can be used to brand tobacco products. Regulating pack shape and opening design is clearly within the remit of the plain packaging legislation and our findings provide additional justification for regulating these structural aspects of pack design.

What this paper adds

Different pack shapes and pack openings can impact smokers' ratings of those packs on characteristics such as pack attractiveness, the perceived quality of the cigarettes contained within and the potential to distract from health warnings.



  • Funding This study was funded by the Quit Victoria and the VicHealth Centre for Tobacco Control, Cancer Council Victoria.

  • Competing interests RB is a member of a Technical Advisory Committee advising the Australian Department of Health and Ageing on various aspects of the implementation of the plain packaging legislation. He did not use any information he may have gained on that Committee in making decisions on the form of the study, and this study was designed and implemented completely independent of that Committee.

  • Ethics approval Institutional Research Review Committee.

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