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No lasting effects of plain packaging on cigarette pack retrieval time in small Australian retail outlets
  1. Megan Bayly,
  2. Michelle Scollo,
  3. Melanie Wakefield
  1. Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Professor Melanie Wakefield, Behavioural Science Division, Cancer Council Victoria, 615 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, VIC 3004, Australia; melanie.wakefield{at}

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One of the many claims made by the tobacco industry against Australia's plain packaging legislation was that plain standardised packaging would make it harder for retailers to locate and retrieve packs for customers.1 ,2 The industry argued this would lead to substantially longer transaction times, customer frustration, security issues and, ultimately, loss of trade from smaller convenience to larger discount outlets.3

A real-world study of a panel of small retail outlets by our group aimed to investigate this claim. We found only a small, temporary increase in cigarette pack retrieval times immediately following plain packaging implementation on 1 December 2012.4 By the second week of December 2012, pack retrieval times had returned to levels that were no different to baseline months, as was the case for February 2013.

The pack retrieval protocol was repeated a further two times several months postimplementation in the same panel of stores, as part of a larger tobacco retail monitoring study.4 ,5 The panel of stores was comprised of 303 milk bars, convenience stores, petrol stations and newsagent/lottery outlets in the major Australian cities of Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. Due to store closures, stores out of stock of the requested pack, or other extraneous interference—such as use of automatic dispensers to locate the pack or interruptions while the retailer was retrieving the pack—pack retrieval recordings were completed in 207 stores in both April and July 2013. Over the six data collection periods from June 2012 to July 2013, pack retrievals were recorded 1265 times in total. Pack retrieval was measured by discreetly recording the time taken from the end of the fieldworker's pack request to when the retrieved pack was placed on the counter or its barcode was scanned, whichever was first.4

Average pack retrieval times were calculated adjusting for city, area socio-economic status,6 and store type. Retrieval times were similar in April 2013 (9.66 s; 95% CI 8.61 to 10.71) and July 2013 (9.27 s; 95% CI 8.34 to 10.20), and were both significantly lower than December 2012 (12.43 s, 95% CI 10.84 to 14.01; April 2013: p=0.039; July 2013: p=0.013) (figure 1). When aggregated into baseline (June and September 2012; n=471), implementation (December 2012; n=182) and postimplementation (February, April and July 2013; n=612) periods, pack retrieval during implementation (December 2012) was significantly higher than at baseline (10.34 s; 95% CI 9.66 to 11.02; p=0.013) and postimplementation (9.76 s; 95% CI 9.15 to 10.37; p=0.002), while baseline and postimplementation waves were no different.

Figure 1

Adjusted average pack retrieval duration with 95% CIs, by month, controlling for city, area SES and store type.

These results strengthen findings that plain packaging did not result in substantial delays to consumers at the point of sale in the real world.4 ,7 Retailers quickly adapted to the new packaging, and the brief increase in pack retrieval time that occurred immediately after plain packaging implementation did not persist. Pack retrieval times in 2013, well after plain packaging implementation, were no different to those observed in a fully branded packaging environment.

What this paper adds

  • The claim that plain packaging would negatively impact small tobacco retailers by making it harder to locate and retrieve cigarette packs, thereby increasing transaction times, has not eventuated in Australia.

  • In 1265 pack retrievals recorded between June 2012 and July 2013, well before and after the implementation of plain packaging, we found only a small, temporary increase in pack retrieval time only in the implementation month of December 2012, after which retrieval time returned to, and remained at, baseline levels.

  • Other countries considering plain packaging should not be swayed by tobacco industry claims that plain packaging will adversely impact pack retrieval times in retailers.


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  • Contributors MW and MS co-designed the study and MB coordinated fieldwork and undertook data analysis. All authors contributed to manuscript writing and revisions and approved the final version of the paper.

  • Funding This study was supported by Quit Victoria, Cancer Council Australia, Cancer Council South Australia, Cancer Council Victoria, Cancer Research UK, Fresh, Smoke-free Southwest, Tobacco-Free Futures and Action on Smoking and Health (UK).

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval Institutional Research Review Committee, Cancer Council Victoria.

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

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