When properly blinded, smokers are unable to tell apart brands of cigarettes, according to a study by the Sharik Association for Health Research and Alfaisal University in Saudi Arabia that was published in JMIR Formative Research.
In 2019, Saudi Arabia implemented a law requiring cigarette manufacturers to sell their products in generic, unbranded packaging. Following the measure, smokers started complaining to the Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA) about a perceived difference in cigarette quality. These complaints persisted for more than 90 days, starting in mid-November 2019 and continuing until at least March 2020, when the researchers started writing their manuscript.
Tobacco companies denied changing ingredients, manufacturing processes and the quality of tobacco sold in Saudi Arabia.
Smokers in the United Kingdom and Australia also complained about taste differences after their countries implemented plain tobacco packaging.
Previous studies of the matter did not find significant differences in taste, but they highlighted the difficulties of measuring this variable, which may affect the results. The main difficulty is in the method of measuring the difference between the branded and the plain-packaged cigarettes without exposing participants to the brand they are trying during the study. No previous study was fully able to blind the participants to the cigarette branding, although the senses are known to affect the taste.
For the current study, researchers fitted each participant with virtual reality goggles accompanied by special software to alter the visual reality. In addition, the participants wore medical gloves to alter the feeling of touching the cigarettes. Then, participants received six sequences of different random exposures (three puffs) to three plain-packaged cigarettes (two from their favorite brand and one from another brand as a control) and three branded cigarettes (two from the favorite brand and one from another brand as a control).
After controlling participants’ visual and touch perceptions, no significant differences were observed in their ability to identify plain versus branded cigarettes. Remarkably, no significant differences were seen in smokers’ ability to identify their favorite brands.
The experiment convinced participating smokers that the taste of cigarettes in Saudi Arabia remained unchanged after plain packaging. Prior to the experiment, 16 out of 18 participants thought they detected a change compared to the old, branded cigarettes. After the experiment, all participants reported that they had changed their opinion and did not believe any taste differences existed between plain-packaged and branded cigarettes.
The authors note that sensory perception and sensory research are priorities within the tobacco industry because they have direct effects on commercial concerns. Sensory aspects contribute to smoker satisfaction and tobacco product acceptance, and they play an important role in controlling cigarette-puffing behavior. According to the researchers, tobacco companies have capitalized on distinct sensory preferences across gender, age and ethnic groups by tailoring products for specific populations.