Signs, Things and Packaging: Recovering the Material Agency of the Cigarette Packet

Kirsten Bell

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In recent years, cigarette packets have become the site of considerable legislative attention via initiatives to remove industry branding from tobacco products, based on the premise that branded cigarette packaging acts as a ‘silent salesman’ for smoking. According to this perspective, the cigarette packet has a particular sort of agency, but one rooted in its communicative powers rather than its material qualities. In this paper I reconsider this view, based on an analysis of archives in the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Library produced by a search of the term ‘packet design’, and scholarship on containerization. Taking up the idea of containers as undertheorized forms of materiality, I argue that the cigarette packet is best conceptualized as a technology with powerful, albeit largely invisible, physical consequences on the circulation of cigarettes and the practice of smoking itself.

© 2019, The Author(s). This is an author produced version of a paper published in SOCIAL STUDIES OF SCIENCE uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self- archiving policy. The final published version (version of record) is available online at the link. Some minor differences between this version and the final published version may remain. We suggest you refer to the final published version should you wish to cite from it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-49
JournalSocial Studies of Science
Issue number1
Early online date20 Sept 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • cigarettes
  • containerization
  • materiality
  • packaging
  • smoking
  • standardization
  • technology

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