In India, more than 75 percent of all cigarettes are sold as single sticks valued at close to 30 percent of the Rs.35,000 crore (over $5 billion) Indian market, an international journal says.
The sale of single cigarettes, which is not in the interest of public health, is an important factor for early experimentation, initiation and persistence of tobacco use, says the study.
"Based on the data collected from 10 jurisdictions, we estimate that nearly 75 percent (59-87 percent) of all cigarettes are sold as single sticks," says the study, published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention
The study was conducted under the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease across 10 cities - Agartala, Baroda, Chennai, Delhi, Goa, Indore, Jaipur, Jorhat, Patna and Shimla. It recommends that the Indian government ban the sale of single cigarettes and eliminate "kiddy packs". (The ban does exist but is observed more in breach than in practice.)
"Under the tobacco control legislation in India, each tobacco product has to bear a specified pictorial health warning. But the single cigarette sales defy the overall purpose," study co-investigator Ravinder Kumar said.
"The single cigarette sale is a win-win game for the tobacco industry, but not in the interest of public health," said Kumar, a consultant with the World Health Organization's tuberculosis program and based in Shimla.
It says single or loose cigarettes also promote the sale of illicit cigarettes and neutralize the effect of pack warnings and effective taxation, making tobacco more accessible and affordable to minors.
This is the first study to have estimated the size of the country's single stick market.
The survey was conducted in February 2014 by 10 authors to estimate the sale of cigarettes in packs and sticks, by brands and price over a full business day.
Smoking of cigarettes, bidis and other smoked forms of tobacco are the single largest cause of preventable death among adults in India with more than 1.2 million dying annually.
The study says singles are preferred by smokers as it helps to conceal their habit since it is largely unacceptable publicly in India.
The singles also give vendors a perverse incentive to extract extra margins. For cigarette companies, singles make it easier to promote new brands and conduct market research on customers at the point of sale.
Vendor interviews reveal that the high volumes of singles sale in the premium segment is experimentation of new and existing users, who aspire to become regular smokers of these cigarettes, which are currently smoked occasionally by them, says the study.
Goa among all jurisdictions has the lowest proportion of single cigarette sales and higher pack sales.
It finds that in effect a single cigarette market neutralizes four important tobacco control strategies - protecting minors, pictorial warnings, support quitting and effective taxation.
According to it, students are vulnerable to an early initiation of tobacco use. An easy affordability of loose cigarettes is an enabling factor for the students and minors.
The study establishes that taxes can be raised from 15 percent to 32 percent (depending upon the segment) till such time as single stick price and pack price variance is zero or diminished.