Coles, IGA and Foodworks stores are selling cut-price premium brand cigarettes for as low as $20 a packet that are imported from Ukraine, in a move that has been described by anti-smoking advocates as “reprehensible”.
In recent weeks, Fairfax Media has bought cigarettes from Imperial Tobacco’s line of brands that are from two different countries of origin – New Zealand and the Ukraine.
The cigarette companies are not doing this make money, they’re doing this to keep people hooked.
Quit Victoria director Dr Sarah White
The Ukrainian-made Imperial Tobacco cigarettes range between $3 and $6 cheaper than the company’s cigarettes made in New Zealand, depending on the location of the store and brand.
Quit Victoria director Dr Sarah White said the price drop was concerning.
“So we know that [from] the tobacco companies themselves is that prices are the thing that gets them,” Dr White.
“Any measure that is trying to make cigarettes cheaper for people to keep them hooked on an addictive product that kills two out three long-term smokers is reprehensible.
“The cigarette companies are not doing this make money, they’re doing this to keep people hooked on their toxic product.”
A spokeswoman for the federal department of health said high taxes were part of suite of measures, including advertising bans and education campaigns, the government was doing to help curb smoking.
“The Australian government would be concerned about any reduction in the price of a packet of cigarettes that may attract young people to take up the habit.
“We have one of the highest rates of tax on cigarettes in the world as a means of deterring people from smoking, but if cigarette companies legitimately bring product into the country and drop the price unfortunately there is nothing we can do about that.”
The brand at the centre of the change is popular, premium brand Peter Stuyvesant Blues.
The Ukrainian version is called “Peter Stuyvesant Originals Blue” while the NZ version is dubbed “Peter Stuyvesant Classic Blue”.
Quit Victoria’s Dr White said it was an interesting development.
“It seems like a strange step to take because this is one of their premium brands and they’re devaluing packs made in Ukraine of a premium brand and we have not seen a price variation between variants of the same brand before,” Dr White said.
“We strongly suspect that there is manipulation of prices particularly in areas where people cannot afford premium price packs and there are studies that show there are prices lower around schools.”
There are slight variations in the packaging between the Ukrainian and New Zealand varieties but both appear to be fully compliant with Australian plain packaging laws.
Differences include the layout of the brand title on the packet and the Ukrainian cigarettes internal packaging is shiny foil with an American-style rip open while the NZ cigarettes have matt foil internal packaging and are pull-open.
Woolworths appears to still be selling the more expensive NZ variety.
The origin of supply is interesting for Australian customers. In 2015, Ukraine dropped its lawsuit, funded by British American Tobacco, against Australia at the World Trade Organisation over plain packaging laws.
A spokeswoman for Imperial claimed the company had not changed country of import.
She also denied the company had changed its country of import to provide cut-price cigarettes to the Australian market.
“The Ukraine-manufactured product is a brand extension,” the Imperial spokeswoman said.
“Our Ukrainian facility has the machinery necessary to manufacture this particular product. The balance of that brand family is manufactured in NZ.”
A spokeswoman for Metcash confirmed it wholesales from New Zealand and Ukraine.
“Metcash currently purchases numerous tobacco products from Imperial Tobacco which it distributes to a diverse range of retail customers including IGA and Foodworks. This includes products originating from New Zealand and some product originating from the Ukraine,” the spokeswoman said.
Metcash had not pressured Imperial Tobacco to change its country of import.
A Coles spokesman also confirmed the supermarket giant had not requested a change of country of manufacturer with any of its tobacco suppliers.
“Tax including GST on any cigarette is currently a minimum 59c per stick. Tax makes up the majority of the price that our customers see in store,” the Coles spokesman said.
“The price differential you have noted is due to the recent introduction of a new product, ‘Peter Stuyvesant Originals Blue 20pk,’ which is currently priced at $20. We also sell ‘Peter Stuyvesant Classic Blue 20pk’ which is priced at $25.”