UK tobacco sales fell faster after plain packaging rules came into force

13 July 2020

Rob Davies, The Guardian

Rate of decline equates to about 20m cigarettes a month since introduction of tougher policies

Cigarette sales have decreased by about 20m a month after plain packaging rules and tougher taxes were introduced three years ago, researchers have found.

Prof Anna Gilmore, director of the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG), said: “The underlying rate of decline in tobacco sales almost doubled after these policies were implemented.”

The number of cigarettes sold in the UK was falling by about 12m a month before the measures were introduced in May 2017, according to the TCRG, which is based at the University of Bath.

After the legislation took effect, sales began dropping off much more steeply. Monthly sales were almost 3.29bn individual cigarettes in May 2015, but fell to 3.16bn in April 2018.

The UK was the second country in the world to implement plain packaging laws, Australia was the first, despite suggestions from the tobacco industry that this would increase sales of smuggled cigarettes.

But the decline in UK sales does not appear to have been offset by an increase in illicit tobacco, with HM Revenue & Customs reporting no increase over the period according to the TCRG study, which was published on Monday in the British Medical Journal publication Tobacco Control.

“Governments around the world considering plain packaging can be reassured that this policy works and that the real reason the industry opposes this legislation so vehemently is because it threatens its profitability,” said Gilmore.

“With coronavirus already posing a threat to tobacco company sales and plain packaging of tobacco taking off in other jurisdictions, our findings are more bad news for tobacco companies.”

The study, which was funded by Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation, also found that net revenue for the tobacco industry fell by 13% after implementation of the tougher policies, from £231m to £198m a month.

Simon Clark, director of smokers’ lobby group Forest, disputed the findings, saying: “According to ONS figures, the smoking rate fell significantly more in the years before the introduction of plain packaging than in the period since,” he said.

“Smoking rates have been in decline for decades, regardless of measures like smoking bans or plain packaging, and it’s mostly to do with education or, more recently, smokers switching to e-cigarettes.

“Many adults will continue to smoke because they enjoy it. Grandstanding policies like plain packaging have minimal impact because what matters is the product not the packaging.”

The study also found that smokers were moving away from higher-priced premium brands because packaging was no longer being used to differentiate them from cheaper products.

Dr Rosemary Hiscock, the study’s lead, said: “For many years, the tobacco industry had used packaging to signal the difference between premium and cheap cigarette brands, with smokers often willing to pay markedly more for premium brands.

“This allowed the tobacco industry to make enough profit on premium brands to subsidise its cheap brands, keeping them cheap enough for young people to afford to start smoking and to prevent price conscious smokers from being incentivised to quit.”