Does the hand that controls the cigarette packet rule the smoker? Findings from ethnographic interviews with smokers in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA

Soc Sci Med. 2015 Oct;142:136-44. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.08.021. Epub 2015 Aug 15.


Throughout the twentieth century, packaging was a carefully cultivated element of the appeal of the cigarette. However, the tobacco industry's control over cigarette packaging has been steadily eroded through legislation that aims to rebrand the packet from a desirable to a dangerous commodity-epitomized in Australia's introduction of plain packaging in 2012. Evident in both the enactment of cigarette packaging legislation and industry efforts to overturn it is the assumption that packets do things-i.e. that they have a critical role to play in either promoting or discouraging the habit. Drawing on 175 ethnographic interviews conducted with people smoking in public spaces in Vancouver, Canada; Canberra, Australia; Liverpool, England; and San Francisco, USA, we produce a 'thick description' of smokers' engagements with cigarette packets. We illustrate that despite the very different types of cigarette packaging legislation in place in the four countries, there are marked similarities in the ways smokers engage with their packets. In particular, they are not treated as a purely visual sign; instead, a primary means through which one's own cigarette packet is apprehended is by touch rather than by sight. Smokers perceive cigarette packets largely through the operations of their hands-through their 'handiness'. Thus, our study findings problematize the assumption that how smokers engage with packets when asked to do so on a purely intellectual or aesthetic level reflects how they engage with packets as they are enfolded into their everyday lives.

Keywords: Australia; Canada; Cigarette packaging; Comparative study; Ethnographic interviews; Tobacco control; USA; United Kingdom.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • Australia
  • Avoidance Learning
  • Female
  • Health Promotion / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • North America
  • Product Labeling* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Product Labeling* / methods
  • Product Packaging / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Smoking / psychology*
  • Smoking Cessation
  • Tobacco Industry / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Tobacco Products
  • United Kingdom