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Package size matters: tobacco packaging, retail merchandising and its influence on trial and impulse sales
  1. Timothy Dewhirst
  1. Correspondence to Professor Timothy Dewhirst, Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies, College of Business and Economics, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON N1G 2W1, Canada; dewhirst{at}

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Tobacco packaging is an important marketing and promotional tool with graphics (eg, colour) and structure (eg, shape) used to communicate comparative product harm as well as create appeal.1–11 Concerning the physical dimensions of cigarette packages, those with fewer than 20 cigarettes have been deemed ‘kiddie packs’, which prompted Canada to ban them nationally in 1994.12 13 The ban did not apply to other forms of tobacco, however, and smaller package sizes for cigars, cigarillos and smokeless tobacco persisted. While the primary concern of ‘kiddie packs’ was their enhanced accessibility to children and youth, this paper places focus on how smaller package sizes, including the selling of ‘singles,’ also contribute to ‘impulse’ or unplanned purchases.

Impulse purchases are commonly defined as spontaneous and ‘occurs when a consumer experiences a sudden, often powerful and persistent urge to buy something immediately’. 14 According to British American Tobacco (BAT) documentation, regarding in-store shopping habits, ‘ two-thirds of today’s consumers do not use a shopping list. What this means is that, with the exception of a few specific items which triggered the shopping visit, most of consumer purchase is on impulse—decided at the point-of-sale’.15 Given such dynamics, BAT indicated that ‘it becomes clear that merchandising materials must have high positive impact at point of sales, to draw consumer attention and generate the desired impulse purchase for BAT brands’.15 Although impulse purchases are possible for a wide range of products, they are more commonplace for items such as gum, chocolate bars and magazines that, like tobacco products, are often placed conveniently near point-of-sale or the checkout of retailers.14 ,16 Smokers’ self-reports have indicated that tobacco retail displays are likely to prompt impulse purchases.17–19

A review of advertising, which has circulated in the Canadian retailer trade press magazine, Your Convenience Manager, reveals that the tobacco industry regards package size—in combination with retail displays—as a contributor to impulse sales. As seen in figure 1, the ad copy of the Colts Whisky cigar promotion indicates that ‘improved shelf impact means increased sales’ and that the product is ‘also available in singles to boost your impulse sales’. Tobacco wholesalers and retailers are encouraged to ‘take advantage of the enormous growth of the aromatic cigar segment!’ The producer is identified as the ‘category leader with profitable business solutions’.

Figure 1

Produced by the Scandinavian Tobacco Group, Colts is Canada’s leading cigar brand and includes brand variants and flavours such as Black Cherry, Rum and Wine Mild, Aromatic, Sweets and Whisky. In this advertisement, from the April 2005 edition of Your Convenience Manager, the Whisky brand variant is identified as ‘new’.

As seen in figure 2, the Colts Black Cherry variant is identified as ‘new’ and retailers are encouraged to ‘stock-up now!’ The ad copy refers to the product’s ‘modern, eye-catching packaging’ and states that it is ‘available in packs of eight and singles to generate even more trial and impulse purchases’. Trial purchases are commonly identified as an objective of sales promotion, through the use of product samples, coupons or special prices, in which consumers are encouraged to try a product for the first time with the hope that they will subsequently repurchase.20 21 In this instance, it is unclear whether trial purchases are being sought from non-users of the product category, consumers of a competing brand or a combination thereof.

Figure 2

In this advertisement, from the March/April 2007 edition of Your Convenience Manager, the Black Cherry variant of Colts is identified as ‘new’. Retailers offer Colts singles by drawing from boxes (packages) of 25.

The ads (figures 1 and 2), whose readership was primarily tobacco retailers such as convenience store and petrol station operators, circulated before there was a widespread tobacco retail display ban implemented in Canada. Saskatchewan was the first province to implement such legislation (taking effect in 2002), whereas such legislation took effect in Canada’s most populous provinces, Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, in 2008, when 10 provinces and territories had legislation in effect pertaining to retail tobacco display bans.22 23 Nevertheless, Colts continued to be offered in singles after implementation of Canadian retail tobacco display bans (figure 3) and corresponding publicity from producer, the Scandinavian Tobacco Group Canada continued to state that ‘stocking Colts singles can build impulse sales for retailers’. 24

Figure 3

In this advertisement, from the May/June 2013 edition of Your Convenience Manager, wholesalers and retailers are still encouraged to offer Colts singles—presumably among the six Colts variants depicted—even though tobacco retail display bans had been implemented in Canadian provinces and territories several years earlier. Colts are identified as ‘Canada’s favorite cigar’, with American spelling ironically used for ‘favourite’.

The trade press ads from the Scandinavian Tobacco Group Canada point to several policy implications. According to Canadian federal legislation, the Tobacco Products Labelling Regulations (Cigarettes and Small Cigars), which took effect during September 2011, graphic pictorial health warnings are mandated on 75% of the front and backside of the package with one side being in English and the other side being in French, given Canada is a bilingual country. While Colts might appear to be ‘little cigars’, the Scandinavian Tobacco Group altered the dimensions of their product to ensure that Colts are instead classified as ‘cigars’ (figure 4). Moreover, according to Article 11 of the WHO FCTC, which pertains to the packaging and labelling of tobacco products, ‘each unit packet and package of tobacco products and any outside packaging and labelling of such products also carry health warnings describing the harmful effects of tobacco use’. 25 The availability of ‘singles’ for Colts (figure 5), however, obviously demonstrates that the packaging of tobacco products does not include a health warning. Proposed legislation in Canada calls for plain and standardised packaging protocols and an important consideration will be how package standardisation should apply to various categories of tobacco.

Figure 4

This advertisement circulated in the July/August 2012 issue of Your Convenience Manager. Colts were altered to become 8 mm longer so that the product would be classified as ‘cigars’—rather than ‘little cigars’—and consequently subject to different regulatory requirements with respect to mandated health warnings and package sizes.

Figure 5

On 14 July 2017, in the province of Ontario, purchases were made of Colts Whisky (a package of eight cigars) as well as singles of Colts. The price of a single Colts was $C1.50 and the product was offered in cellophane, which obviously does not depict a health warning. The package of eight Colts cigars does depict a pictorial health warning, but it is only found on the backside of the package (the health warning is in English even though the package copy is in French) and it is considerably smaller than what is mandated on a cigarette or little cigar package.



  • Contributors TD was the sole contributor to the writing and analysis of the study.

  • Competing interests TD is an Associate Editor of Tobacco Control with respect to Product Marketing and Promotion. He has served as an expert witness in tobacco litigation including for the governments of Alberta and Nova Scotia in Canada whose policies regarding the retail display and promotion of tobacco products were challenged on constitutional grounds.

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