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Australia's plain packaging legislation was passed in the lower house of the Australian Parliament on 21 November 2011, and was signed into law a few weeks later on 1 December 2011.1 The legislation requires that all tobacco sold at retail in Australia after 1 December 2012 be packaged in drab, dark brown packs, with standardised lettering for the brand name (in Pantone Cool Gray, 2C Lucida Sans regular font, size 14, with no capital letters apart from the first in each word) and any variant name in font size 10. Further, packs sold are also required to feature graphic health warnings covering 75% of the front of pack and 90% of the back.2
As part of our routine surveillance activities, we monitor offerings of factory-made cigarettes of all three major manufacturing companies in Australia—British American Tobacco Australia (BATA), Philip Morris (PM), and Imperial Tobacco Australia (ITA). We examine available trade magazines and undertake monthly checks of products available on-line and in-store. Periodically, we also receive promotional flyers that have been distributed by the manufacturing companies to retailers. From these sources we report five major trends in the factory-made cigarette market in Australia that we discerned in the 12 months leading up to, and following, the implementation of plain packaging: (1) reassurance of product quality to smokers; (2) shift of promotional attention to brand and variant names; (3) renewed emphasis on value for money; (4) introduction of novel products and (5) rationalisation of product offerings. Examples of each of these trends are described below using complementary photographic material.
Trend 1. Reassurance of smokers about product quality
Throughout the lead-in period, manufacturers communicated to consumers via the branded packaging of their cigarettes. All three major manufacturers used messages on the pack face of at least one of their top selling brands.
Trend 1.1. Written guarantees of continuing quality
Figure 1 demonstrates a reassurance message from BATA to smokers of the continuing quality of its top selling brand, Winfield, perhaps also attempting to dispel rumours that tobacco ingredients would be altered in the lead-up to plain packaging.3 This message seems to reflect an acknowledgment by tobacco manufacturers that consumers’ taste perceptions are influenced by packaging and design.4 ,5 The many experimental studies of plain packaging demonstrate that consumers expect plainly packaged cigarettes to have poorer taste by being stronger, less satisfying, and/or lower in quality than cigarettes contained in branded packs.6
A similar message on pack inserts was also noted in at least one PM brand, reading ‘Our promise: Although plain packaging will be introduced in December 2012, the quality and taste of your product will remain the same.’7
Trend 1.2. Graphic suggestion of continuing product quality
ITA changed pack design most dramatically, releasing a mock-up of plain packs for Peter Stuyvesant, its top selling premium brand, several months prior to the implementation date. Cartons included some packs that appeared in packaging close to the required plain pack colour, other packs that were fully branded, and some that appeared as if plain packaging were being ripped off to reveal the ‘true’ product underneath (see figure 2). This reinforced the message visible on the top of some of the packs, that ‘it's what's on the inside that counts’. Apart from reassuring smokers about quality, this promotion may also have aimed to reduce the initial shock of plain packs, attempting to desensitise smokers somewhat by giving them a glimpse of what was to come.
Trend 1.3. Production of covers
At least one company, BPM Innovations, produced and promoted ‘skins’ specially designed to cover the new standardised cigarette packs.8
Trend 2. Shift to promotion through greater attention to the names of brands, brand extensions and variants
Plain packaging legislation in Australia places no restrictions or limitations on the naming of brands and continues to allow the use of brand variants. We noted examples of companies using this remaining allowable form of promotion in at least three ways.
Trend 2.1. Colour connotations achieved with packaging continued through incorporation into the brand variant name
Although use of ‘light’ and 'mild’ descriptors ended in Australia in 2006, companies continued to use terms and packaging colours that implied differences in taste and strength (and by implication, harmfulness) of various brands and brand variants.9 Greenland has demonstrated that colour has played an extremely important role in Australia in establishing the identity and appeal of cigarette brands.10 Leading up to the introduction of plain packaging, variant names that did not include colour descriptors were extended to include the colours of packaging that were in use prior to the implementation of the legislation. Peter Jackson Rich, for instance, which previously had gold packaging was renamed Peter Jackson Rich Gold. Likewise, the formerly blue packaged Dunhill Distinct became Dunhill Distinct Blue. Dunhill Premier, once packaged in red, became Dunhill Premier Red and Dunhill Infinite, formerly packaged in white, became Dunhill Infinite White.
The inclusion of the colour names, it was claimed, was intended to make purchasing the pack easier for consumers as smokers often asked for their variant by pack colour rather than name. In a communication to retailers informing them of these changes from 1 October 2012, and providing a summary table of concordance between the names of old and new variants, BATA stated that these changes reflected ‘the way your customers ask for it’.7 This suggests the companies were eager to ensure smokers were easily able to purchase their regular products, and may have the additional effect of retaining some of the connotations of prestige, tradition, quality, taste, strength and, by association, harm, previously implied by the packaging colour.11
Trend 2.2. More evocative names
In several instances, variant names that already included or implied a pack colour were lengthened to include descriptors that evoked the sensation or feature previously connoted by that colour. Pall Mall Amber for example became Pall Mall Smooth Amber and Pall Mall Blue became Pall Mall Rich Blue.
Several new products with unusually long and highly evocative names were also introduced into the market including Peter Stuyvesant New York Blend and Marlboro Silver Fine Scent. Such names would stand out and create a positive brand impression on the price boards that are still allowed at retail outlets in most Australian states and territories.12
Trend 2.3. Displacement of brown pack space with lettering
While the legislation has limited the font size in which the brand name and the variant name can be displayed, it placed no limit on the length (number of characters) of the names. Apart from the pleasant associations with luxury and sophistication they evoke, long product names such as Peter Stuyvesant New York Blend also have the advantage of taking up a very large amount of the brown space on the pack.
Another approach along these lines has been to make the variant part of the brand name itself. Manufacturers began to register new trademarks that included variant names some months prior to the implementation of the legislation. This allowed brands, such as Marlboro, to use the maximum legal font size permitted under plain packaging legislation (font size 14) for the brand name and what was the variant name—ie, Marlboro Red—thus avoiding having to use smaller font size prescribed for variant names (font size 10, and required to be positioned underneath the brand name). This made the variant name more prominent and took up more of the unattractive brown space than would otherwise have been the case (see figure 3).
Trend 3. Renewed emphasis on value for money
Providing value for money has been a strong feature of the cigarette market in Australia for many decades.13 In the lead-up to the introduction of plain packaging and shortly afterwards, manufacturers added more attractive features to value brands. They introduced new brands that retailed at a lower price than existing ‘value’ products. They also introduced brand extensions providing extra length cigarettes. Finally, they added extra cigarettes to the pack for existing brands previously sold only in standard 20 and 25 pack sizes.
Trend 3.1. Introduction of menthol varieties in ‘value’ brands
Menthol variants were introduced for BATA value brand Pall Mall. Within BATA's Holiday value brand range, the Holiday ‘Green’ variant was replaced with the Holiday ‘Sea Green Menthol’. Just prior to the introduction of plain packaging, three additional Holiday new-generation menthol variants were introduced in pack sizes of 25s and 40s—Cool Frost, Cool Chill and Cool Blast (see figure 4). A stamp on the top of the pack indicated that these had menthol loadings of one, two and three, respectively.
Trend 3.2. New super-value packs
Early in 2012, PM launched a pack of 26 cigarettes called Bond Street, the first pack in Australia to be produced in a size other than multiples of five sticks (20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 50), offering an extra cigarette at a substantially lower price than other value brands in the 25s format. A few months later BATA introduced its own super-value brand of 25 cigarettes called Just Smokes. These two brands retailed in supermarkets at approximately $A0.51 and $A0.50 per stick, respectively, in July 2012, compared to the best-selling brand of 25 cigarettes, BATA's Winfield 25s, which retailed at $A0.67 per stick, and PM's Choice 40s cigarettes which, at $A0.46 per stick, was the cheapest brand of cigarettes (on a per stick basis) produced by any of the major companies (on-line price checks conducted in July 2012). At about $A13.30 per pack, the upfront prices of Bond Street and Just Smokes were considerably cheaper than Choice 40s ($A18.40). Bond Street had a relatively simple package design, which would have been helpful in preparing for the transition to the plain packaging.
Trend 3.3. Extra length cigarettes
Several new extra length cigarettes came onto the market in the months prior to and shortly after plain packaging. These included BATA's Benson & Hedges Deluxe Kings 20s and Pall Mall Extra Kings (first noted in price lists in October 2013, but noted for sale in stores in September 2012).
Trend 3.4. Packs with ‘extra’ cigarettes
New pack sizes of 21, 22, 23 and 26 cigarettes were introduced in value brands that were traditionally sold in packs of 20 or 25. These packs offer ‘bonus’ cigarettes for a similar price to the usual 20 and 25 pack size configurations. The recommended retail price (RRP) of Horizon 20s, for instance, is identical to the 21 pack.14 The RRP of Holiday 22s (depicted in figure 5) from August 2013 was $A0.60 lower than a pack of Holiday 20s.14 In late 2013, a premium brand also launched an ‘extra’ cigarette product, Stuyvesant + Loosie, available in 21s and 26s.
In some instances, the change in number of cigarettes in the pack was prompted by the provisions of the legislation. Australia's plain packaging legislation specifies minimum pack dimensions to which two branded packs—JPS Nano and Pall Mall Slims—did not conform. Rather than converting slim cigarettes to standard-sized, the two affected manufacturers, ITA and BATA, responded by increasing the number of cigarettes included per pack from 20 to 23, maintaining their slim cigarettes and at the same time providing pack sizes that offered good value for money.
Three trends in one: a winning combination
As is evident from the examples above, many brand modifications demonstrated two or more of the features documented above. One particular brand embodied many of these strategies in the lead-up to plain packaging. Early in 2012, ITA introduced its own super-value brand, JPS Nano 20s.
Sharing a name with the popular Apple iPod, featuring a non-slip textured grip pattern often observed on hand-held devices, as well as being aggressively promoted on price boards and one of the most affordable brands on the market, it seems likely that JPS Nano would have considerable appeal to youth (see figure 6). As has recently been observed by Savelli et al,15 ‘the utilisation of key touchstones of digital culture may also imply that these cigarettes are meant for those who are young, modern and digitally literate.’
The ‘of-the-times’ name, and the later provision of three extra cigarettes, may have helped to maintain sales of JPS Nano and Imperial Tobacco to increase market share for the JPS brand family following the introduction of plain packaging (see page 4 of transcript of report on the company's preliminary results for 2013 financial year).16
Trend 4. Introduction of novel cigarette types
Trend 4.1 Menthol hybrids
Menthol hybrids are regular (non-menthol) cigarettes that can be given a menthol burst by squeezing and ‘popping’ a ball in the filter of the cigarette containing a menthol liquid (see figure 7). They have been appearing in several markets around the world since they first emerged some time before 2011.17
A small number of premium menthol hybrid products were already on the market prior to the announcement of plain packaging—brands such as Marlboro Ice and Dunhill Switch. However, new hybrid extensions of two of the three top-selling mainstream brands (Winfield and Peter Jackson) were introduced in the lead-up to plain packaging. Highly stylised packaging prior to the introduction of plain packaging may have been intended to help establish the terms Crush, Switch, Hybrid and Duo which were all the manufacturers could rely on postimplementation to communicate the dual nature of the cigarette (see figure 8, image on left). PM renamed its Peter Jackson hybrid variant after the implementation of plain packaging, so that an explanation of hybrids is contained within the variant name (see figure 8 image, on right).
The JPS Duo menthol hybrid (the first hybrid observed among value brands) was introduced just as plain packaging was implemented. Only a couple of such packs were ever observed by us in fully branded form. Forming part of the trademark for the brand was an image even more evocative of iPod technology than JPS Nano. This trademark appears to have been registered in July 2012 and accepted on 25 October 2012, well after packs could be manufactured in fully branded form in Australia (see http://www.trademarkify.com.au/trademark/1503389?i=DUO_JOHN_PLAYER_SPECIAL_RED-Van_Nelle_Tabak_Nederland_BV#.Up8iDWfxt9M).
Trend 4.2. Mint leaf ‘fusions’
ITA's Horizon Fusions, introduced in late 2012 represented a new type of cigarette rather than another variant. Unlike traditional menthol cigarettes which have added menthol flavour, Horizon Fusions consisted of tobacco mixed with mint leaves. This provided both novelty and an emphasis on naturalness and freshness of flavour in strong contrast to the drab brown plain packaging (see (http://www.ipaustralia.com.au/applicant/van-nelle-tabak-nederland-bv/trademarks/1497401/)). Horizon is a value brand and the Fusions product extension was priced the same as other Horizon 20s products, but was promoted in trade magazines as containing ‘premium’ tobacco.
Trend 5. Rationalisation of product offerings
In addition to introducing the new cigarette types, brands and pack sizes described above, each of the major companies also took the opportunity to remove several less popular brands and pack sizes from their portfolio of product offerings. Apart from the 20s and 25s that were complemented or replaced with novel pack sizes (21s, 22s, 23s, and 26s), products dropped included IT brand Brandon 40s (see figure 9), sales of which had declined markedly in recent years.18–23 Packs of 20s for BATA's Pall Mall were also dropped. Several brands of 35s (BATA's Cambridge and Wills) were replaced with 30s, providing a lower up-front purchase cost to consumers. See table 1 for a catalogue of the changes observed.
Rationalisation of product offerings, by eliminating several pack size offerings with low market share, would have helped the companies to reduce production and distribution costs. The more cigarettes that can be packaged into one pack, the cheaper the wholesale cost per stick, and the lower the liability for goods and services tax.13 Cigarettes packaged in 50s in Australia may have become prohibitively expensive for some smokers, with the RRP for Horizon 50s, for instance, exceeding $A30 in August 2012.13 The release of several brands of packs of 40s may represent an alternative that is cheaper up-front. On the other hand, packaging extra cigarettes in small pack sizes (21s, 22s, 23s) enables the companies to provide each smoker with their month or year's supply of cigarettes at a cheaper cost than would be the case if cigarettes were packaged as 20s.
During the months leading up to plain packaging, all three major Australian tobacco manufacturers engaged in strategies of reassuring customers, re-energising the names of brands, and expanding product ranges to provide extra value for money and retain consumer interest. Some of these trends are not unique to Australia, and may have occurred regardless of plain packaging. For instance, bonus cigarettes in packs have been observed in the UK,24 a country that, like Australia, levies high taxes on tobacco products.25 Menthol hybrids have emerged in many other markets since 2010.17 Menthol loading is also a feature now evident in many international markets.26 The re-engineering of pack design and printing required leading up to 1 December 2012, likely exerted a concertina effect, with manufacturers taking advantage of the last few months of unregulated pack design to accelerate the introduction of such products into the Australian market. Several of the increases in cigarette numbers in packs were introduced coinciding with required changes necessary to comply with the legislation. Changing pack design once would be less costly for companies than changing once to standardise packaging and then again later to add bonus cigarettes.
These observations from Australia may be instructive for other countries contemplating legislation standardising the packaging of tobacco products. Officials in other countries contemplating standardised packaging should be aware of possible industry activity between legislation being proposed, passed and implemented, and consider taking steps to limit those that are likely to be damaging to consumers. Though their use in Australia turned out to be relatively limited and short-lived27 the production and sale of branded tins and plastic sheafs in the months leading up to implementation—covers that would still be able to be used by consumers after standardised packaging became mandatory—is something that could be specifically banned. Several elements of legislation standardising packaging could be strengthened. A minimum circumference and length for cigarettes would put an end to ‘slim’ cigarettes which hold considerable appeal to female smokers.28–30 Consideration might be given to specifying a standard number of cigarettes in each pack, to limiting the length (number of letters) of brand and brand variant names, and to prohibiting the use of brand variant names suggesting reduced harm, enjoyment, social or sexual success. Beyond restrictions on packaging and labelling (including naming), price-related promotions (including the provision of bonus sticks) should be banned and products should be much more tightly regulated to ban flavourings such as menthol.
Contributors MS conceived of this paper, MB coordinated tobacco product reference materials and JO assisted. JO and MS drafted the manuscript and all authors contributed with 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 and Action on Smoking and Health (UK) and its partner organisations Cancer Research UK, Smokefree Southwest, Fresh and Tobacco Free Futures.
Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.