A 1.5 billion fall in the number of cigarettes smoked in the UK seems to point to the government having success with its measures to reduce smoking. What it really signals, though, is ongoing down-trading in the sector and the growth of roll-your-own.

The most notable trend of the past year has been an unprecedented level of new tobacco launches - everything from female-focused super-slim and demi-slim cigarettes to flavour-changing innovations. Manufacturers are clearly in a hurry to get their NPD into the marketplace ahead of the display ban, which comes into effect for large stores in April.

Despite impressive new product development, smokers continue to seek wallet-friendly options - and while we’ve seen the development of a new category with Imperial’s Make Your Own, roll-your-own has experienced strong growth, says Paul Batchelor, tobacco buyer at Nisa-Today’s.

“Down-trading to economy brands is likely to continue as duty and price increases take their toll on the beleaguered smoker,” he adds. “Those already purchasing from within the economy sector have nowhere to go except to RYO. Growth in this sector continues unabated.”

JTI head of communications Jeremy Blackburn acknowledges the economic situation has had an impact on the category. “The premium brands have been affected, but we are continuing to look to shore up this part of the sector and it still represents a big chunk,” he says.

The main premium brands losing sales have been Marlboro King Size Gold, with a drop of 2.6%, Regal King Size, down 8.4%, and Benson & Hedges Gold, falling 4.7%. But mid-priced B&H King Size Silver has had a successful year, with a 7.1% sales uplift to £406.8m - something Blackburn attributes to consumers trading down, but not wanting to go too far.

Sales of Imperial Tobacco’s category-leading Lambert & Butler King Size fell 4.9%, but still dwarfed those of JTI’s Mayfair King Size, in second place. And while L&B struggled to maintain momentum, Imperial enjoyed spectacular success with John Player Special Blue - sales were up 87.9%, a continuation of 2010’s stellar performance.

“Smokers continue to choose brands from the lower-priced sectors and this trend has ensured the success of the JPS range,” says Imperial head of grocery Christopher Street.

Make Your Own Tobacco rangeImperial

In a launch-tastic year for the tobacco category, Imperial’s Make Your Own tobacco range, introduced in April, stands out. It provides an innovative solution to a growing problem - how to stop smokers being attracted to illicit, cut-price cigarettes.

After an initial outlay of £3.09, Imperial’s kit gives smokers the wherewithal to ‘make their own’ 20 John Player Special cigarettes for under £4. The product is proving a hit with retailers and, with the economy showing little sign of improvement, is likely to gain further traction.

Top Products Survey 2011: Heroes and Hurdles