Standardised plain packaging

From 20th May 2016, the laws surrounding tobacco packaging changed in the UK. It is now necessary for all tobacco products manufactured and sold in the UK to be ‘plain’.

Why Standardised Packaging?

Tobacco will kill 1 in 2 of its long-term users and the majority of these would have begun their addiction in childhood. Young people often feel a strong affiliation towards brands and have high levels of brand awareness, so by taking branding away from cigarettes, the tobacco industry loses that tool to target would-be smokers.

The other benefits of plain packaging include:

  • Reducing the appeal of smoking to young people
  • Reducing the deception about the harmfulness of cigarettes
  • Strengthening the impact of graphic health warnings

The Story

From 20th May 2016, the laws surrounding tobacco packaging changed in the UK. From this date it was necessary for all tobacco products manufactured for sale in the UK to comply with the new laws. There was a one year transitional period for the sell-through of old stock and from May 2017 it additionally became necessary for all tobacco products on sale in the UK to comply with these regulations.

Under the new packaging and labelling regulations cigarettes and tobacco can no longer be sold in bright, glitzy packs, but in drab green packages. They must have large graphic images on the front and back of the packets to highlight the health effects of smoking and health warnings must appear at the top of all packs.

The new packaging rules are contained in two sets of regulations:

Standardised “Plain” Packaging

Tobacco Products Directive

Standardised “Plain” Packaging

Standardised or “plain” packaging is tobacco packaging that has had all the attractive features removed. In March 2015 MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of introducing regulations to standardise the appearance of all tobacco packaging in the UK. This includes:

Material, size, shape and opening mechanism

Colour of packaging and cigarettes

Font, colour, size, case and alignment of text

Tobacco Products Directive

The Tobacco Products Directive applies to all tobacco products manufactured and sold within EU member states. With regards to tobacco packaging, the TPD (which took affect in May 2016) enforces:

Requirement of combined picture and text health warnings to cover 65% of the front and back of cigarette and roll-your-own tobacco packages

Requirement of health warnings to appear at the top of the packet

Prohibition of certain promotional and misleading descriptors on packaging of tobacco products such as “lite”, “natural” and “organic”

Requirement that cigarettes are sold in packs of a minimum of 20 sticks and Hand Rolling Tobacco in a minimum of 30 gram packets

Public opinion

There is widespread public support for tobacco being sold in plain, standardised packaging; a YouGov survey post-implementation (2017) showed 65% of adults in Wales supported requiring tobacco to be sold in plain standardised packaging with the product name in standard lettering.

Opposition to Standardised Packaging

The tobacco industry has campaigned extensively against the introduction of standardised packaging. Industry representatives have made a range of claims, including citing false or questionable evidence to MPs and the public. Some of the industry’s claims, and the facts, used in the campaign include:

The Government will have to pay billions of pounds of compensation

This is an industry suggestion that compensation would be due to tobacco companies in regards to loss of sales. If the Government had legal advice that high levels of compensation were due, it would have had to be included in the bill’s Impact Assessment, which is was not. In any case, the overall benefits of standardised packaging are approximately £30 billion, therefore outweighing any compensation.

Standardised packaging will be the final blow for retailers

Although there is evidence in the Government’s Impact Assessment to show that retail newsagents are likely to have reduced profits from tobacco, the Impact Assessment also makes clear that money not spend on tobacco will be redistributed to other areas of the economy. Small businesses like newsagents will pick up some of this benefit, which will outweigh tobacco profits lost.

Standardised packaging will lead to an increase in the trade of illegal tobacco

Standardised “Plain” Packaging

HMRC has concluded that no evidence has been seen to suggest the introduction of standardised packaging will have an impact on the overall size of the illegal tobacco market. Claims that illegal tobacco trade has increased in Australia are not substantiated by data from the Australian Government. Indeed, one study found that, contrary to tobacco industry claims, there has been no evidence in Australia of increased use of illicit tobacco2.The only reports showing an increase have been funded by the tobacco industry and have not been peer-reviewed.

Standardised packaging has led to an increase in youth smoking3

Data from Australia has been misquoted by the tobacco industry in attempts to substantiate this claim. The data used does not include enough under 18s for the figures to be reliable. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that the introduction of standardised packaging has reduced the appeal of cigarette packs to adolescents.

Shutters to put tobacco out of sight will cost small retailers thousands of pounds

This is simply untrue and cost-effective covers can be bought for as little as £120.

Case Study: Australia

Australia became the first country in the world to introduce standardised tobacco packaging in December 2012 and tobacco is now sold in packs like those in the image. Evidence shows that it is having a positive impact and reducing smoking prevalence.

  • The only branding is the product name in a standard font and colour
  • The pack and contents are a standard shape, size and colour
  • Health warnings on the front and back have been increased in size
  • Security markings, including covert security, remain

A recent Cochrane review1 looking at the impact of tobacco packaging design on tobacco use found a reduction in smoking of 0.5% up to one year after the standardised pack policy was introduced in Australia, which the authors say would translate into 300,000 fewer smokers in the UK should the policy have an equivalent impact here.

Other countries around the world are also in the process of implementing standardised tobacco packaging. In France, all packs on sale have been required to be in a standardised format since 1 January 2017. All tobacco products manufactured for retail sale in Ireland must be in standardised retail packaging from 30th September 2017. Any products manufactured and placed on the market before that date that are not compliant with the new requirements will be permitted to stay on the market until 30th September, 2018.


Who can help me to quit smoking?

Tailored support

Help Me Quit is a new, free NHS service in Wales. They will help you to pick the best way to quit, whether that’s telephone support, one-to-one or group meetings or the local pharmacy. They can also recommend which nicotine replacements, such as patches or gum, are best for you.


Phone: 0800 085 2219 – Text: HMQ to 80818

Further Reading

McNeill A, Gravely S, Hitchman SC, Bauld L (2017) Hammond D, Hartmann-Boyce J. Tobacco packaging design for reducing tobacco use. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews; Issue 4.

2 Scollo M, Zacher M, Coomber K and Wakefield M (2015) Use of illicit tobacco following introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco products in Australia: results from a national cross-sectional survey. Tobacco Control Journal; 24:ii76-ii81

White V, Williams T & Wakefield M. (2015) Has the introduction of plain packaging with larger graphic health warnings changed adolescents’ perceptions of cigarette packs and brands? Tobacco Control Journal; 24:ii42-ii49