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The effects of variant descriptors on the potential effectiveness of plain packaging
  1. Ron Borland,
  2. Steven Savvas
  1. The Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Ron Borland, The Cancer Council Victoria, 1 Rathdowne St, Carlton, Melbourne, VIC 3053, Australia; Ron.Borland{at}


Objectives To examine the effects that variant descriptor labels on cigarette packs have on smokers’ perceptions of those packs and the cigarettes contained within.

Method As part of two larger web-based studies (each involved 160 young adult ever-smokers 18–29 years old), respondents were shown a computer image of a plain cigarette pack and sets of related variant descriptors. The sets included terms that varied in terms of descriptors of colours as names, flavour strength, degrees of filter venting, filter types, quality, type of cigarette and numbers. For each set, respondents rated the highest and lowest of two or three of the following four characteristics: quality, strongest or weakest in taste, delivers most or least tar/nicotine, and most or least level of harm.

Results There were significant differences on all four ratings. Quality ratings were the least differentiated. Except for colour descriptors, where ‘Gold’ rated high in quality but medium in other ratings, ratings of quality, harm, strength and delivery were all positively associated when rated on the same descriptors.

Conclusions Descriptor labels on cigarette packs, can affect smokers’ perceptions of the characteristics of the cigarettes contained within. Therefore, they are a potential means by which product differentiation can occur. In particular, having variants differing in perceived strength while not differing in deliveries of harmful ingredients is particularly problematic. Any packaging policy should take into account the possibility that variant descriptors can mislead smokers into making inappropriate product attributions.

  • Packaging and Labelling
  • Advertising and Promotion
  • Harm Reduction

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