Tobacco firms in the UK are accused of circumventing laws that stipulated unbranded brown packaging for products, through a variety of strategies that have helped brands stand out while staying within the letter of the law.

According to a report from academics at the University of Bath published in the British Medical Journal’s Open access section, despite the obligation to wrap products in brown packaging, the techniques for selling cigarettes have not gone away but have instead become more subtle.

Big tobacco companies have, in recent years, ploughed money into non-combustible products (vapes) rather than traditional cigarettes and rolling tobacco that have been a hugely effective profit-driver for the industry: cost of production remains low, while people remain addicted.

The researchers allege that before UK standardised packaging legislation, which came into force between 2016 and 2017, manufacturers increased production of branded packs that the legislation permitted during a 12 month “sell-through” period. This meant that even as the law took effect, there was still plenty of branding on kiosk shelves.

In this period, the authors also identified an increase in small pack sizes, along with the incentivisation of retailers to encourage sales of branded products before the ban came into place in full.

Following the ban, tactics needed to become subtler. Given that the ban included any advertising of the cigarette’s own qualities, the package copy began to focus on ideas like pro-seal packaging by Philip Morris International’s Malboro cigarette range.

“Major tobacco companies will always try to find a way to market their products,” said Dr. Karen Evand-Reeves, lead author of the report, in comments to the Guardian. “Based on the number of innovations we found in this study, we would encourage all governments considering implementing plain packaging legislation to consider how tobacco companies have adapted to the legislation in other countries and where possible, close any remaining loopholes.”

Despite passing parliament in 2014, the standardised packaging laws were held up from implementation for two years following multiple unsuccessful legal challenges from the tobacco industry. British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and Philip Morris International argued that the law would infringe their human and intellectual property rights.

Sourced from the British Medical Journal, The Guardian; additional content by WARC staff