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Plain packaging reduces ‘cigarette seeking’ response by almost a tenth

11 February 2015

Plain tobacco packaging may reduce the likelihood of smokers seeking to obtain cigarettes by almost 10 per cent compared to branded packs, according to research from the Universities of Bristol and Exeter.

The findings come amidst debate over whether a law introducing plain cigarette packaging in England and Wales could come into force in 2016. Last month ministers said MPs would be asked to vote on the plan before May's general election, following a series of public consultations on the issue.

Associate Professor Lee Hogarth, the lead author of the study from the University of Exeter, said: “The key finding was that plain cigarette packs were about 10 per cent less likely to prompt participants to make the tobacco choice compared to branded packs. In fact, the prototype plain packs promoted no more tobacco choice than when no pack was presented. These findings provide experimental support for the idea that introducing plain packaging might reduce tobacco purchasing or consumption.”

However, the researchers also advise caution when interpreting these results. As Professor Marcus Munafo, a co-author of the study from the University of Bristol, explained: “The experimental procedure only modelled the ability of pack stimuli to promote a cigarette-seeking choice. In the natural environment, smoking may be governed by a whole range of factors, including tobacco withdrawal, the presence of other people smoking, time of day, and so on. It is not clear to what extent plain packaging will reduce smoking when these other factors are at play.”

Co-author Dr Olivia Maynard of the University of Bristol won an Economic and Social Research Council Impact Prize for her PhD research into plain packaging. She said: “The current laboratory study tested whether plain packing might influence tobacco-seeking behaviour. Our previous research in this area has been used to inform tobacco control policies both in the UK and internationally. Our hope is that high quality experimental research of this kind can make a meaningful contribution to important policy debates.”

The study, published in the January 2015 volume of the journal Addiction, received funding from the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research.

 ‘Plain cigarette packs do not exert Pavlovian to instrumental transfer of control over tobacco-seeking’ by Hogarth L, Maynard OM, and Munafo MR in Addiction

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