Smoking Reduced Significantly by Plain Packaging, New Tax

Liam Davenport

July 14, 2020

Sales of cigarettes declined sharply in the United Kingdom in the months following the introduction of standardized plain packaging and an increase in the minimum price of a packet, a new study shows. The researchers "recommend other countries consider implementing both policies for the improvement of public health."

"Smoking continues to be the leading preventable cause of cancer in the world," said Sara Bullock, policy advisor to the charity Cancer Research UK, which co-funded the study.

"This study suggests that increasing tobacco taxes and introducing standardized plain packaging has helped to reduce the number of cigarettes smoked in the UK," she said in a statement. "Measures like these, which reduce the use of this deadly product and ultimately save lives, should be a priority for all governments."

The research was published in Tobacco Control on July 13.

The United Kingdom was the second country in the world, after Australia, to introduce standardized plain packaging for factory-made cigarettes. That move was fully implemented by June 2017. At the same time, a new tax was introduced, the minimum excise tax (MET), which raised the lowest price that could be charged for a packet of cigarettes.

The study authors set out to determine the impact of these changes on cigarettes sales by gathering electronic point-of-sales data on tobacco products from Nielsen, a global information company that covers almost 90% of supermarkets and 15% of convenience stores in the United Kingdom.

The investigators calculated that the volume of tobacco sales fell from 2.33 billion packets of cigarettes in May 2015 to 2.04 billion in April 2018.

"The combination of tax increases and standardized packaging has led to a significant decline in tobacco sales," said Anna Gilmore, PhD, director of the Tobacco Control Research Group, who was principal investigator for the study.

"The underlying rate of decline in tobacco sales almost doubled after these policies were implemented," she noted.

The average monthly change in packet sales declined by 11.5 million sales over the period June 2015 to March 2016. After the legislative changes were introduced, sales declined further by 20.4 million between June 2017 and March 2018.

This equated to 9.0 million fewer packet sales per month between the two periods.

Roll-Your-Own Tobacco Sales Increased

In contrast, sales of roll-your-own (RYO) tobacco increased over the course of the study, despite the fact that standardized packaging was introduced for this form of tobacco at the same time such packaging was introduced for factory-made cigarettes.

RYO tobacco sales grew from 0.95 billion packet equivalents in May 2015 to 1.12 billion in April 2018.

This equated to an increase in average monthly packet sales of 2.6 million from June 2015 to March 2016 and June 2017 to Match 2018.

"Now that the MET has addressed cheaper factory-made cigarettes, the government also needs to increase RYO taxes," said Rob Branston, PhD, also from the Tobacco Control Research Group.

"Currently, price-sensitive smokers can still switch to using cheap RYO cigarettes instead of quitting. These are just as deadly as factory-made cigarettes but are currently taxed at a significantly lower rate," he noted.

The study was funded by Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation. Branston owns 10 shares in Imperial Tobacco for research purposes. The shares were a gift from a public health campaigner and are not held for financial gain or benefit. All dividends received are donated to tobacco/health related charities, and proceeds from any future share sale or takeover will be similarly donated. No other significant financial relationships have been reported.

Tob Control. doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2019-055387. Full text

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