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Young adult smokers’ perceptions of illicit tobacco and the possible impact of plain packaging on purchase behaviour

Crawford Moodie, Gerard Hastings, Luk Joossens
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckr038 251-253 First published online: 26 March 2011


Plain (unbranded) packaging for cigarettes is at the top of the tobacco control agenda in both Australia and Europe. The evidence suggests that it will benefit public health by decreasing the appeal of tobacco products and increasing the power of the health warning. The tobacco industry instead argues that plain packaging would make it easier to counterfeit cigarettes, which would both confuse consumers and reduce price; thereby increasing consumption. Using focus group research we examined young adult smokers (N = 54) perceptions of, and ability to recognize, illicit tobacco and the possible impact of plain packaging on illicit tobacco purchasing behaviour. We found that the pack has no impact on the decision to buy illicit tobacco. Smokers were easily able to identify counterfeit cigarettes, not least by the pack, and buy it knowingly and in the full expectation that it will be inferior in quality. Illicit tobacco purchase, including that for counterfeit tobacco, was instead driven by availability and price. Given the extremely low manufacturing cost, per pack, of certain types of illicit cigarettes, it is difficult to envisage how plain packaging would alter the price of illicit tobacco in any meaningful way. The findings therefore suggest that a move to plain packaging would have no impact on young adult smokers’ purchase behaviour.


The Australian Government has declared its intention to mandate plain packaging for all tobacco products by 2012. The European Commission is currently consulting on further revisions to the Tobacco Products Directive, which includes the possibility of plain packaging. These moves are supported by an evidence base which suggests that plain packs make tobacco products less attractive, increase the salience of health warnings and prevent the use of colours that consumers mistakenly associate with reduced harm.1 The marketing literature confirms that the pack, the ‘silent salesman’, performs many important promotional functions.

Logically, then, mandating plain packaging for tobacco products should benefit public health. The tobacco industry argues, however, that such a move could be counterproductive by making counterfeit cigarettes simpler to produce, thereby confusing consumers about genuine product and also reducing the price of illicit tobacco which would, in turn, inadvertently increase consumption. Counterfeit cigarettes and the so-called ‘cheap whites’ have emerged as the primary form of illicit cigarette trade in the UK, and represent >90% of all large cigarette seizures in the UK in 2008/2009.2 Counterfeit products are illegally manufactured, and bear a trademark without the consent of its owner. Cheap whites are legally manufactured cigarette brands, which are only intended for the illegal market. The most known ‘cheap white’ is Jin Ling, a cigarette brand legally manufactured in Russia, but destined for the illegal market in the rest of Europe.3

That the illicit cigarette trade is driven by macro-economic factors such as the presence of supply routes and distribution networks, the stringency of customs regulation and international cooperation,4,5 rather than micro-level factors such as pack design, suggests that plain packaging would not fundamentally change anything. Nonetheless, the industry argument that plain packaging would reduce costs for producing illicit tobacco, and make it easier to fool consumers, warrants further investigation. When considering the first of these points, it is important to note that the true cost of manufacturing illicit tobacco, on a large scale, is so low that it is difficult to envisage how it could be reduced much further. For instance, one of the most seized cigarette brands in the European Union is Jin Ling. The manufacturer of Jin Ling sells to smugglers by the container-load at 20 US cents (14 euro cents, 12 pence) a packet.3 At this cost it is simply not possible for plain packaging to make any meaningful difference to pricing.

In terms of making counterfeiting simpler to produce and therefore making it easier to fool people into thinking the copy is the real thing, two sets of people would have to be fooled: regulators and consumers. The need for regulators to be able to identify counterfeit tobacco has been recognized by policy-makers and measures have been taken to ensure this is possible. In Europe, for example, a purpose designed covert security mark has been mandated as part of the ‘verification of genuine product’ scheme.2 Thus, regulators do not depend on pack design to identify counterfeit product and plain packaging would therefore have no effect on their ability to do so. Turning to the consumer, the tobacco industry position presupposes that (i) the decision to buy counterfeit cigarettes is influenced by pack design, and (ii) counterfeiters currently spend significant time and effort, and therefore money, ensuring that they get the pack ‘right’. The industry offers no evidence to support these suppositions; our research fills this gap.


Design and sample

The study used eight focus groups with 54 young adult smokers, aged 18–35 years, recruited in January 2010 in Glasgow by trained market research recruiters. We used young adults because this age group contains more than half of all smokers in the UK6 and research among 5177 adults in England found that younger smokers were buying more illicit cigarettes than other age groups.7 Each group had six or seven participants and was segmented by gender, age (18–24, 25–35 years) and social grade (ABC1, C2DE).


Purposive sampling was used to recruit participants. Focus groups were held in a hotel function room or community hall. A semi-structured approach was employed not only to allow consistency in the topics explored, but also a degree of flexibility in allowing key issues to be explored in greater depth.8 Participants provided consent prior to arrival and at the start of the group were informed about confidentiality, the right to withdraw and the right not to respond to any question. Each group began with general questions to elicit information about smoking behaviour, brand smoked and general perceptions of tobacco packaging and plain packaging; not discussed here. They were also asked about their experiences, if any, of using illicit (including counterfeit) tobacco and whether they felt that there would be any change in this behaviour if all cigarettes came in identically coloured, non-branded (plain) packs.


Use and recognition of illicit tobacco

Men were more likely to use illicit tobacco than women, but both were easily able to distinguish smuggled and counterfeit products from each other—and both from legitimate product. Smuggled tobacco was reported to be immediately recognizable from legitimate product by the foreign writing on the pack. Participants reported three clear indicators of counterfeit tobacco: (i) pack appearance that stands out from that of genuine packs because of colour variations, poorer quality printing, cheaper cardboard and inferior cellophane, which frequently sticks to pack; (ii) cigarette appearance including different colour of filter, additional bands of paper around the filter, thinner cigarette paper, different size or colour of brand name on the cigarette and more loosely packed tobacco; (iii) product performance including different burn rate, smell and taste. Counterfeit product was also readily identifiable because of the way it was acquired—mostly through chance offerings and a tell-tale low price. The only way I would, like buy counterfeit stuff or like, is just if it’s offered to me, you know what I mean, someone’s got it and it’s a wee bit cheaper and saves me going to the shop (Male, 18–24 years, ABC1) You hear somebody in the football team or somebody at work can get them for £4 a packet or £3, I think it’s common (Male, 18–24 years, ABC1) Whether the box was brown, pink, green, do you know what I mean, if they’re cheap then you’re going to buy them (Male, 25–35, ABC1)


General perceptions of illicit tobacco, for those who used illicit tobacco presently or in the past, were negative, particularly for counterfeit tobacco, which was considered poor quality. Counterfeit are always worse I think (Male, 18–24 years, ABC1) They (counterfeit cigarettes) just sat in the house because I didn’t smoke them. I’d maybe have a couple out the packet and then they just sat there (Male, 25–35 years, ABC1)

Aside from tasting bad, several males also reported becoming ill after smoking counterfeit cigarettes, with mention of colds, chest infections and sore throats. You get some fags, they’ll say 20 Regal, but they don’t taste like 20 Regal (Male, 25–35 years, ABC1) As soon as you take the first draw of it you can tell it’s really bad (Male, 18–24 years, ABC1) You get a cold or you get ill after smoking four or five (Male, 18–24 years, C2DE)

The Perceived Impact of Plain Packaging

When asked if their illicit tobacco purchasing behaviour would change if all cigarettes came in the same coloured packs, the consensus among males, those most likely to purchase illicit tobacco, was that it would not, with illicit tobacco use typically the result of availability and price, as previously mentioned. Females likewise said they would not change their illicit tobacco use, or start buying illicit tobacco, because of the packaging, and indeed one female said she would be more likely to buy them from a shop to guarantee that the cigarettes were genuine; ‘I’d want to buy it in a shop, so I knew I was sure of what I was buying’ (Female, 25–35 years, C2DE).


This study indicates that packaging, whether branded or plain, has no impact on the decision to consume counterfeit tobacco. Smokers indicated that counterfeit product was immediately recognizable, not least by the poor quality of all aspects of the packaging. There is no evidence the counterfeiters are putting any great effort into pack quality, or getting it right. Furthermore, counterfeit tobacco, which was perceived negatively by smokers, is readily betrayed by poor product appearance and performance. Thus, the two suppositions underpinning the industry argument, first, that packaging matters in the purchase decision, and secondly, that counterfeiters come anywhere near fooling smokers with their packs, are refuted by this research. Furthermore, smokers in this study were adamant that plain packaging would have no impact on their consumption of counterfeit cigarettes.

Illicit tobacco was, however, consumed on the basis of price and availability. If plain packaging were to reduce costs for the production of illicit tobacco, this could stimulate consumption of such products. However, as mentioned previously, the costs of manufacturing cigarettes for the illicit market on a large scale are so low that the presence of branding on packaging is unlikely to impact upon costs in any meaningful way. In addition, that the new Tobacco Products Directive will almost certainly mandate the use of pictorial warnings, given that the European Union is now lagging behind all other non-European countries that have pictorial warnings,9 means that the additional cost and complexity of reproducing such images on counterfeit products will offset any marginal reduction in costs for counterfeiters if plain packaging is introduced.

The findings cannot be generalized to the wider population of young adult smokers, or indeed smokers more generally. Future research could consider not only a broader age range of smokers but also level of addiction. Nevertheless, the findings provide, for the first time, insight into young adult smokers’ perceptions of illicit tobacco and the potential impact of plain packaging on illicit tobacco purchase behaviour.


Cancer Research UK (C30469/A11949).

Conflicts of interest: None declared.

Key points

  • Smokers’ use of illicit tobacco is related to price and availability and not pack design.

  • Smokers are easily able to identify counterfeit tobacco, by the pack, the cigarette appearance and product performance. In every area counterfeits are inferior.

  • If cigarettes were sold in identically coloured non-branded (plain) packs, smokers stated that their counterfeit tobacco purchasing behaviour would not change


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