Tobacco use is the largest single preventable cause of death and disease worldwide. Standardised tobacco packaging is an intervention intended to reduce the promotional appeal of packs and can be defined as packaging with a uniform colour (and in some cases shape and size) with no logos or branding, apart from health warnings and other government-mandated information, and the brand name in a prescribed uniform font, colour and size. Australia was the first country to implement standardised tobacco packaging between October and December 2012, France implemented standardised tobacco packaging on 1 January 2017 and several other countries are implementing, or intending to implement, standardised tobacco packaging.
To assess the effect of standardised tobacco packaging on tobacco use uptake, cessation and reduction.
We searched MEDLINE, Embase, PsycINFO and six other databases from 1980 to January 2016. We checked bibliographies and contacted study authors to identify additional peer-reviewed studies.
Primary outcomes included changes in tobacco use prevalence incorporating tobacco use uptake, cessation, consumption and relapse prevention. Secondary outcomes covered intermediate outcomes that can be measured and are relevant to tobacco use uptake, cessation or reduction. We considered multiple study designs: randomised controlled trials, quasi-experimental and experimental studies, observational cross-sectional and cohort studies. The review focused on all populations and people of any age; to be included, studies had to be published in peer-reviewed journals. We examined studies that assessed the impact of changes in tobacco packaging such as colour, design, size and type of health warnings on the packs in relation to branded packaging. In experiments, the control condition was branded tobacco packaging but could include variations of standardised packaging.
Screening and data extraction followed standard Cochrane methods. We used different 'Risk of bias' domains for different study types. We have summarised findings narratively.
Fifty-one studies met our inclusion criteria, involving approximately 800,000 participants. The studies included were diverse, including observational studies, between- and within-participant experimental studies, cohort and cross-sectional studies, and time-series analyses. Few studies assessed behavioural outcomes in youth and non-smokers. Five studies assessed the primary outcomes: one observational study assessed smoking prevalence among 700,000 participants until one year after standardised packaging in Australia; four studies assessed consumption in 9394 participants, including a series of Australian national cross-sectional surveys of 8811 current smokers, in addition to three smaller studies. No studies assessed uptake, cessation, or relapse prevention. Two studies assessed quit attempts. Twenty studies examined other behavioural outcomes and 45 studies examined non-behavioural outcomes (e.g. appeal, perceptions of harm). In line with the challenges inherent in evaluating standardised tobacco packaging, a number of methodological imitations were apparent in the included studies and overall we judged most studies to be at high or unclear risk of bias in at least one domain. The one included study assessing the impact of standardised tobacco packaging on smoking prevalence in Australia found a 3.7% reduction in odds when comparing before to after the packaging change, or a 0.5 percentage point drop in smoking prevalence, when adjusting for confounders. Confidence in this finding is limited, due to the nature of the evidence available, and is therefore rated low by GRADE standards. Findings were mixed amongst the four studies assessing consumption, with some studies finding no difference and some studies finding evidence of a decrease; certainty in this outcome was rated very low by GRADE standards due to the limitations in study design. One national study of Australian adult smoker cohorts (5441 participants) found that quit attempts increased from 20.2% prior to the introduction of standardised packaging to 26.6% one year post-implementation. A second study of calls to quitlines provides indirect support for this finding, with a 78% increase observed in the number of calls after the implementation of standardised packaging. Here again, certainty is low. Studies of other behavioural outcomes found evidence of increased avoidance behaviours when using standardised packs, reduced demand for standardised packs and reduced craving. Evidence from studies measuring eye-tracking showed increased visual attention to health warnings on standardised compared to branded packs. Corroborative evidence for the latter finding came from studies assessing non-behavioural outcomes, which in general found greater warning salience when viewing standardised, than branded packs. There was mixed evidence for quitting cognitions, whereas findings with youth generally pointed towards standardised packs being less likely to motivate smoking initiation than branded packs. We found the most consistent evidence for appeal, with standardised packs rating lower than branded packs. Tobacco in standardised packs was also generally perceived as worse-tasting and lower quality than tobacco in branded packs. Standardised packaging also appeared to reduce misperceptions that some cigarettes are less harmful than others, but only when dark colours were used for the uniform colour of the pack.
The available evidence suggests that standardised packaging may reduce smoking prevalence. Only one country had implemented standardised packaging at the time of this review, so evidence comes from one large observational study that provides evidence for this effect. A reduction in smoking behaviour is supported by routinely collected data by the Australian government. Data on the effects of standardised packaging on non-behavioural outcomes (e.g. appeal) are clearer and provide plausible mechanisms of effect consistent with the observed decline in prevalence. As standardised packaging is implemented in different countries, research programmes should be initiated to capture long term effects on tobacco use prevalence, behaviour, and uptake. We did not find any evidence suggesting standardised packaging may increase tobacco use.