With increasing restrictions on cigarette marketing, the cigarette pack itself has become a main means of marketing. We describe a method to examine cigarette labelling and use it to evaluate packs collected from 12 countries at different stages of economic development. Health warnings were present on all 115 packs of cigarettes examined, but were on the front and back panels of only 68 per cent. Promotional labels were widespread, found on packs from all countries and more numerous (although not necessarily larger) than health warning labels in 10 of the 12 countries. Deceptive terms such as 'light' and 'mild' were observed on 42 per cent of all packs examined. The simple method described here can be used to compare cigarette labelling and potentially evaluate and track the implementation of cigarette labelling policy. We found health warning legislation poorly enforced and cigarette packs widely used to promote smoking and deceive smokers about health risks. The findings underline the need for generic (plain) packaging.