Objective: The prevalence of illicitly traded cigarettes in South Africa has been reported to be 40-50%. However, these estimates do not account for the more nuanced characteristics of the illicit cigarette trade. With the goal of better understanding contraband cigarettes in South Africa, this study piloted three methods for assessing the price, brands, pack features and smoker's views about illicit cigarettes in five cities/towns. Data were collected in June and July 2012. Setting: A convenience sample of three South African cities (Johannesburg, Durban and Nelspruit) and two smaller towns (Musina and Ficksburg) were chosen for this study. Outcome measures: Three cross-sectional approaches were used to assess the characteristics of contraband cigarettes: (1) a dummy purchase of cigarettes from informal retailers, (2) the collection of discarded cigarette packs and (3) a survey of tobacco smokers. Participants: For the purposes of the survey, 40 self-reported smokers were recruited at taxi ranks in each downtown site. Adults who were over the age of 18 were asked to verbally consent to participate in the study and answer a questionnaire administered by a researcher. Results: The leading reason for labelling a pack as illicit in each city/town was the absence of an excise stamp (28.6% overall), and the least common reason was an illegal tar or nicotine level (11.1% overall). The overall proportion of informal vendors who sold illicit cigarettes was 41%. Singles and packs of 20 were consistently cheaper at informal vendors. Survey participants' responses reflected varied perspectives on illicit cigarettes and purchasing preferences. Conclusions: Each approach generated an interesting insight into physical aspects of illicit cigarettes. While this pilot study cannot be used to generate generalisable statistics on illicit cigarettes, more systematic surveys of this nature could inform researchers' and practitioners' initiatives to combat illicit and legal cigarette sales and usage.
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