Plain Packaging for Cigarettes in the UK, Ireland, and France

Zosia Chustecka

May 20, 2016

After a historic court ruling in the United Kingdom, cigarettes will now be sold in plain packaging, with prominent, graphic health warnings. Ireland and France have also passed legislation requiring plain packaging.

Australia introduced plain packaging in December 2012. Data from Australia suggest that plain packaging discourages people from smoking and makes smoking less appealing to young people.

The move has been welcomed by cancer charities, especially Cancer Research UK, which has long campaigned for plain packaging.

Sir Harpal Kumar, PhD, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said: "This is an important milestone in our efforts to reduce the devastating toll that tobacco exerts on so many families every day.

"It's taken many years to get to this point, and it reflects a huge effort aimed at protecting children from tobacco marketing. Two thirds of regular smokers start before they turn 18, so it is vital that the UK introduced measures like this. Australia's experience has shown that standard packaging helps reduce youth smoking rates. We look forward to a tobacco-free generation which won't be scarred by this lethal addiction," he said in a statement.

Huge Picture Health Warnings

"Plain" packaging is bit of a misnomer ― the new packs feature large color photographs that take up more than 65% of the surface on the front and back of the pack. These pictures depict health damage caused by smoking. In addition, written health warnings appear on the top and the side of the pack. The rest of the pack is a dull olive color, without any company logos, branding, or promotional text.

Image courtesy of Action on Smoking and Health

Tobacco companies have a year in which to sell old stock and to fully implement the changes, which also include a ban on small 10-cigarette packs and on menthol cigarettes.

The move is made under the European Union Tobacco Product Directive, which was enacted in 2014, but implementation has been held up by a series of court cases testing its legality.

Yesterday, a UK High Court rejected a legal challenge to plain packaging from a group of cigarette manufacturers that included British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, Japan Tobacco International, and Imperial Brands. Three of the four companies have said that they are planning to appeal.

There have also been failed legal challenges to plain packaging in the European courts, and recently, news came that the tobacco industry failed in a secret bid to sue Australia over its plain packaging laws, notes Vital Strategies, a group formed when Union North America and the World Lung Foundation joined forces.

The group also notes that the UK court criticized the tobacco industry for failing to disclose internal assessments of the impact of pack design on youth and the likely impact of plain packaging on sales. In addition, the judge criticized the industry's expert evidence, noting that the vast majority of the studies had not been peer reviewed or published in an appropriate journal.

The UK ruling is "a victory for common sense and public health and a bitter disappointment for big tobacco and its efforts to bully national governments around the world," commented José Luis Castro, president and chief executive officer, Vital Strategies.

"As soon as a sovereign government considers large graphic warnings or plain packaging of tobacco products, some of the world's biggest and most profitable companies threaten legal action. But time and again they are being defeated," he added in a statement.

"Science is firmly on the side of tobacco control," Castro said. "This should provide further reassurance to governments all around the world currently being threatened by tobacco industry lawyers. We call on those countries currently considering and enacting plain packaging to follow the UK's lead and for those who need it to avail themselves of assistance from the Anti-Tobacco Trade Litigation Fund. Together, we can stand up to the tobacco industry and save millions of lives."

Plain packaging is being considered by New Zealand, Norway, Hungary, Sweden, Finland, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Canada. A summary of the current situation in each country is available online.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.