Nationwide cigarette sales in fiscal 1997 registered the first fall in nine years due partly to price hikes, an industry group has reported.

Sales shrank 5.8 percent from the previous year to 328 billion cigarettes, the first drop since 1985, when the distribution of tobacco was deregulated, the Tobacco Institute of Japan said recently.

Sales of domestically made cigarettes declined 5.9 percent to 254.6 billion, while imported cigarettes dropped 5.4 percent to 73.5 billion, said the institute, which is made up of five Japanese and foreign tobacco makers.

Tobacco sales were some 9 billion cigarettes above average in March 1997 as smokers bought extra packs before prices went up in line with the consumption tax increase the following April. The tax hike played a big part in pulling down sales in fiscal 1997, institute officials said.

Japan Tobacco Inc.’s Mild Seven remained the best-selling brand for the fourth consecutive year, the institute said.

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