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Plain cigarette packaging changes attitudes to smoking but doesn’t impact smoking behaviour in the short term

Image of some cigarettes in a plain package

Press release issued: 13 March 2015

Using plain packaging for just one day can change smokers’ attitudes towards their cigarette packs, according to the first randomised controlled trial into the effects of short-term exposure to plain cigarette packaging on smoking attitudes and behaviour.

These results come two days after politicians in the UK voted to introduce plain cigarette packaging, a measure which will be introduced in May 2016.  This new legislation will bring the UK in line with Australia, which is currently the only country to have introduced plain packaging, and Ireland, which passed a similar law earlier this month.

Researchers at the University of Bristol, along with collaborators from the Universities of Stirling and Exeter, asked daily cigarette smokers to use either a branded pack of cigarettes (purchased in the UK) or a plain pack of cigarettes (purchased in Australia, where plain packaging was introduced in 2013) for a single day.  Smoking behaviour was measured by asking participants to smoke their cigarettes through a device called a ‘topography monitor’.  Participants also rated their attitudes to the packs and to smoking in general.

The results showed that although there were no immediate effects of using the plain pack on how many cigarettes were smoked over the course of the day, daily smokers who used the plain pack reported more negative experiences of using the pack, rated the pack itself as more negative, and reported that the health warning was more impactful, compared with those who used the branded pack.  This fits with recent evidence from Australia that smokers are less likely to put their packs on display since the introduction of plain packs.

Dr Olivia Maynard, the lead author of the study explained: “The fact that we did not see any effect of using plain packaging on smoking behaviour is perhaps not surprising, as our participants only used the packs for a day. However, the changes in attitudes that we observed after this short exposure to the packaging are interesting and suggest that plain packaging may impact behaviour over time.”

Professor Marcus Munafò, the senior author on the paper explained: “This is perhaps the closest we can come to looking at the likely impact of introducing plain packaging on current smokers in a country where it has yet to be introduced.  Although most of the interest in plain packaging stems from the anticipated impact on the uptake of smoking in young people, our results suggest that there may be immediate effects on the attitudes of established smokers.”

The study, published today in the journal BMC Public Health, received funding from the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research.


‘Effects of first exposure to plain cigarette packaging on smoking behaviour and attitudes: A randomised controlled study’ by Olivia M Maynard, Ute Leonards, Angela S Attwood, Linda Bauld, Lee Hogarth and Marcus R Munafò in BMC Public Health [Open Access]

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