The cigarettes that worry tobacco firms

Manchester cigarette packet Image copyright other

Tobacco companies are warning of an increase in smuggling if the UK passes a law removing branding from cigarette packets. This is what happened when Australia shifted to plain packaging in 2012, it's been reported, and the biggest rise was found in sales of brands known as "illicit whites". Elle Metz asks why.

The most popular illegally sold cigarette brand in Australia is called Manchester, according to a 2013 study by KPMG. It's not a counterfeit - it's not designed to resemble a cigarette manufactured by a different company - but the packet is made to look entirely traditional.

"A rich blend of the finest tobacco result in this smooth and satisfying flavour," reads the blurb on its packages.

"Manufactured under authority from J.S.S. Tobacco Ltd. London - United Kingdom."

The grammar is not perfect, perhaps, but otherwise the packet looks smart. It even carries a health warning.

Experts had predicted that the new rules would lead to a sharp increase in counterfeit cigarette sales - after all, plain packaging is easy to imitate.

Instead the main beneficiaries were these "illicit whites" - cigarettes that may be produced legally but are "typically not sold legally anywhere and are often made exclusively for smuggling", as KPMG puts it.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In Australia brand names are in a prescribed colour and size - health warnings must cover most of a packet

Overall sales of illicit whites quadrupled between 2012 and mid-2013 according to the KPMG researchers, whose report was commissioned by tobacco companies (and is therefore taken with a pinch of salt by some academics).

The illegal cigarettes sold for about half the price of a popular legal brand such as Marlboro or Winfield, the study noted. Manchester was even found to have ended up with a higher market share than some legal brands.

Other less common illicit whites had names such as Timeless Time, Sunlite and Win.

Dr Crawford Moodie of the University of Stirling points out that illicit whites will generally have a price advantage if they are legal at the point of manufacture, as they often are. Some reports suggest Manchester cigarettes - thought to be legally manufactured in the United Arab Emirates, China and the Philippines - can even be legally sold in some Asian countries.

By contrast counterfeit cigarettes are illegal wherever they are produced, and this introduces risks and extra costs.

Also, in a country of plain cigarette packs like Australia, "fully branded packs are going to stand out," Moodie says. They would be "easy to recognise", and while this may contribute to their appeal it also makes them easier for the authorities to detect.

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