As expected, the 'public health' review of plain packaging - conducted by Sir Cyril Chantler - concluded that the policy was worth a punt. Chantler concluded that, if combined with other measures, plain packaging is "very likely to lead to a modest but important reduction over time on the uptake and prevalence of smoking". In the press conference, he mentioned that there will be no relevant smoking prevalence figures published in Australia until October 2015 at the earliest. In other words, there won't be any real world evidence for some time - and it is this that the government said it was looking for.
Anyone who expects to find anything new in the report will be disappointed. It merely summarises the numerous hypothetical studies and surveys that have been created by tobacco control activists in recent years. It also relies heavily on the review by the anti-capitalist fanatic Gerard Hastings, a man who fundamentally misunderstands why people buy things in the first place ('corporate power' etc.).
In other words, the new report summarises all the previous studies which the government decided in 2013 did not provide enough evidence to proceed. Chantler comes to the opposite conclusion because he is uncritical of the tobacco control junk science and because he dismisses other evidence out of hand. For example, he ignores the KPMG report because (as he explained in the press conference today) it uses the empty pack method for estimating the proportion of illicit cigarettes in the market. In fact, collecting empty packs is a far better way of measuring the black market than asking people to own up to buying contraband (which is what the government does these days).
On the question of whether plain packaging would lead to people buying cheaper brands and therefore possibly smoking more, Chantler completely misses the point. He notes that cigarette prices have risen since plain packaging and that manufacturers have added to heavy tax rises. He seems not to understand that the issue is about people trading down within the category. For this, there is plenty of evidence, as Reuters mentioned today...
The Retail World supermarket sales data also showed that while sales volumes of "mainstream" and "premium" cigarettes fell by 8-9 percent, "value" brand sales rose 12.9 percent
On the issue of counterfeiting he, again, misses the point. "In my view," he writes, "the argument that standardised packaging makes it materially easier or cheaper for criminals to produce counterfeit packaging is not supported by the evidence I have seen." This is highly debatable; there are clearly economic savings to be had by only having to counterfeit one pack design. Nevertheless, this is not the main issue. The experience in Australia has not so much been that plain packs have been counterfeited (though there have been seizures of such products), but that counterfeiters have been producing completely fake, branded brands such as 'Manchester'. Chantler doesn't mention this at all. Instead he uses a very selective, edited quote from a tobacco executive to imply that counterfeiting has actually declined (p. 34).
Chantler does not mention that the Australian government's own figures show that seizures of smuggled tobacco have been rising, nor that tobacco plants are being grown on an industrial (agricultural?) scale, nor that legal sales are rising as well.
To be fair, the illicit trade was not his main remit, but this only underlines the need for reviews into all the other aspects of this issue - smuggling, intellectual property, trade agreements and so on. All the pros and cons must be weighed before a decision can be made. As I said a couple of weeks ago, we cannot make policy based on a hunch about possible "modest" health effects while ignoring the other aspects. If we did, there would be no end to government interference and the public health racket would run wild. Which is what has been happening.