Sneaky tobacco companies use mystery shoppers to exploit ciggie loophole

15 December 2016:

TOBACCO companies are offering gift cards, flights and hotel stays to retailers to try and encourage them to push their brand onto customers.

With the battle for Australia’s $2.6 billion tobacco industry fiercer than ever, manufacturers are fighting to lure the nation’s dwindling number of smokers.

And while advertising bans and plain packaging laws have hit their profits, tobacco companies have found a sneaky legal loophole around them.

Marketing reps are sent to hotels, supermarkets, petrol stations, tobacconists and newsagents to train sales assistants in how to promote their brands to customers.

If they do as they are instructed, staff can win points and prizes such as gift cards, flights, hotel stays and vouchers for spa and beauty packages.

That’s where mystery shoppers come in: they keep tabs on staff, awarding points to those who recommend one cigarette brand over another.

It’s called “trade marketing”, and is one of the only legal ways cigarette makers can promote their wares under the highly restrictive regime that governs the sale and use of tobacco.

Health advocates say the scheme threatens to undermine the government’s plan to slash the rate of smoking to 10 per cent of the population by 2018.

But the loophole may soon be closed, with NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner vowing to clamp down on the practice after being contacted by


Mystery shoppers hired by Imperial Tobacco are sent to retailers with a very specific script.

“I normally smoke Winfield 30s but I am looking for an alternative, what would you recommend instead of Winfield 30s?” the shoppers are instructed to ask, in a job summary seen by

When asked how much they want to spend, the mystery shopper says “maybe something a little cheaper”.

If asked about their preferred cigarette’s strength, the shopper replies: “I usually smoke the blue ones.”

Then it’s over to the staff member who says the magic words and steers the “customer” towards John Player Special, a brand imported by Imperial. If the staff member does not mention any other brand, they score points towards the company’s incentive program.

At this point, the mystery shopper identifies him or herself and informs the staff member that the results will be tallied at head office and prizes awarded to those with the top scores.