"We must not campaign, or allow ourselves to be used to campaign."
—BBC Charter, Section 10.2.3
I don't think I've ever seen the BBC make such a blatant attempt to influence government policy as Peter Taylor's Burning Desire documentary did on Thursday. You can watch it here. For most of its one hour running time, it was an overt campaign video for plain packaging, with the assistance of the campaign group Tobacco Free Futures and a host of plain pack advocates including Linda Bauld, Melanie Wakefield, John Britton, James Reilly and Mike Daube. Insofar as there was any pretense of balance, it came from carefully edited quotes from a few employees of British American Tobacco.
Peter Taylor has been making occasional documentaries about tobacco for forty years. I suspect that his formal pitch to the BBC was that this new programme would look back over that period and see how things have changed. The first third of Burning Desire did that to some extent, but only as an hors d'oeuvre before the main course of political activism.
The hazards of smoking are now universally recognised. There are some who see cigarettes as a defective product and believe that the tobacco industry should stop selling them. There are others who think that so long as people are appropriately informed about the hazards, they should be able to buy them without being over-charged, harassed or demonised. Taylor clearly falls into the former camp and I fall into the latter. There is a legitimate debate to be had and a decent documentary could be made from it. This, however, was not it. It was barely even a documentary.
|The Daily Mail review|
The first part of Burning Desire made the observation that, after forty years, lots of people are still smoking and the tobacco industry is still making a lot of money. We are told about Britain's numerous anti-smoking laws and are then told that smoking rates are rising amongst 25-34 year olds. Taylor does not display any curiosity as to why people are taking up smoking at such an age, nor does he ask why the overall smoking rate has flat-lined since the UK started binge legislating in 2007. On the contrary, we are told that nearly everybody starts smoking as children and that the latest anti-smoking ruse—plain packaging—is the "decisive battle". Implement plain packaging and all will be well.
"Gruesome pictures will replace glossy images." Or legally registered brands & trademarks, as we in the real world call them #BurningDesire
— Dan (@danmacdonald73) May 29, 2014
This section of the documentary featured smokers of various ages who, rather awkwardly for Taylor, failed to blame packaging, advertising or the industry for their habit. A group of young college students said they started smoking because "everybody else did", or because it was "cool", or—brace yourself—because they "really enjoyed it".
Taylor may have been hoping to get more supportive quotes from an elderly couple who have been smoking for fifty years and who both have smoking-related diseases. Alas, no. "Who do you blame?" he asks Diane, who started smoking at the inconveniently mature age of 19. "Myself. I can only blame myself." Meanwhile her husband John, who claimed to have smoked 100 cigarettes a day, said he did so because he "really enjoyed it".
Man who smoked 100 per day: "I loved smoking, it was something to do". #BBC2 #BurningDesire
— Helen© (@HenHen177) May 29, 2014
The lack of relevance of these testimonies to the plain packaging campaign is not dwelt upon. Instead, we are shown some old television advertisements for cigarettes, mostly from before the smoking-lung cancer link was identified and all from the USA. We are then told that packaging represents the 'last vestige of marketing'.
At this point, the documentary focuses on its real target and sticks with it for the next 35 minutes. We are transported to sunny Bondi Beach. Swimmers swim. Surfers surf. Children smile. All is joyous and thriving. And no wonder, because—as Taylor—explains...
"Smokers in Australia are now an ostracised minority. A year and a half ago glossy packages were consigned to the dustbin history."
It is not explained why ostracising minorities is a good thing, but Taylor clearly thinks that the second sentence is strongly connected to the first. There is no mention of the fact that both cigarette sales and smoking rates have risen (or, at best, stayed flat) since plain packaging was introduced. How does Taylor know that hardly anybody smokes since plain packaging came in? Because the tutor of a group of trainee lifeguards doesn't think any of them smoke. What more proof can anyone ask for?
|Bondi Beach: A paternalist's paradise|
We then cut back to London where Taylor claims that the Westminister government did a 'U-turn' by rejecting plain packaging. This is doubly untrue. There was never a commitment to bring in plain packaging and it was never rejected, only put on the back burner while the situation was monitored in Australia. Inevitably, this is followed by a few minutes of the Lynton Crosby conspiracy theory, despite Taylor acknowledging that both Crosby and Cameron explicitly denied ever discussing the policy.
that was a rather biased and non-open minded bit of reporting. #BBC2 #BurningDesire
— Patrick Keating (@keatingpatrick) May 29, 2014
While in London, Cyril Chantler is interviewed. His claim that smoking places a "huge burden" on the NHS ("which we all pay for") goes unchallenged despite Taylor having earlier acknowledged that tobacco tax receipts pay for the cost of smoking-related diseases twice over (in fact, they pay for it three times over). Chantler then starts talking about the benefits of reducing the smoking rate by two percentage points. The clear implication is that this would be the effect of plain packaging, despite there being no evidence for it and despite nobody—including Chantler—having ever having made such a claim.
Huge costs to the NHS... Is that the same cost that was stated earlier to be half that of the tax revenue smoking brings in? #BurningDesire
— Matthaeus Excelsior (@matthirtyfive) May 29, 2014
Having failed to get adult smokers to indict tobacco packaging, Taylor resorts to a focus group of 11 and 12 year olds that has been assembled—and, one suspects, trained—by the state-funded lobby group Tobacco Free Futures (which was "working alongside the BBC in creating the documentary"). The kids are shown Sobranie Cocktails and other obscure but elaborate cigarette brands (which children don't buy) and they eventually provide enough supportive quotes for Taylor to edit together to make his case.
For the next quarter of an hour, Taylor makes a rather muddled attempt to show that plain packaging will not increase the illicit trade in tobacco. The viewer is taken to a customs warehouse in Australia where a massive seizure of cigarettes from China has recently been carried out. In Melbourne, he goes on a sting operation to see how easy it is to buy illegal cigarettes from shops. Back in the UK, he joins Trading Standards where a newsagent is busted for selling counterfeit cigarettes.
This all suggests that the sale of illicit tobacco is widespread and that the anti-smoking lobby's favourite policy of high taxes is the main driver (as Chantler accepted in his review). Instead, Taylor makes a half-hearted attempt to blame Big Tobacco for selling too many cigarettes to countries that illegally export tobacco, despite the fact that the products he finds on his travels are not legitimate Western brands.
#BurningDesire #bbc2 Is this actually just a really long advert?
— Duncan Stoddard (@duncstod86) May 29, 2014
He then turns to the question of how to measure the illicit market. HMRC figures suggest that the black market, while large, is smaller than industry-funded research suggests. HMRC uses survey data, asking people if they have bought illegal tobacco in the last year, while the industry collects discarded cigarette packs to see what proportion is illicit. Neither approach is perfect, but Taylor dismisses the latter as being "hardly scientific" and puts his faith in the self-reported survey data instead. In fact, empty pack surveys have been used by governments around the world for decades to estimate the size of the illicit trade and have a big advantage over asking people to effectively confess to a crime.
A spokesman for BAT Australia tries to explain this but is cut off mid-sentence. Instead, we hear from Melanie Wakefield who asserts her scientific credentials (she's a psychologist) and says that the industry-funded research is "rubbish". Why so? Because it uses "leading questions". This is an odd criticism since the empty pack surveys don't involve any questions at all. It is a particularly odd criticism coming from Melanie Wakefield, whose research into plain packaging involves showing cigarette packets to teenagers and asking them, er, leading questions.
Blithe dismissal of industry-funded research allows Taylor to ignore the evidence of increased smuggling and the growth of counterfeit brands in Australia since plain packaging was introduced. He also ignores official data showing a rise in illicit tobacco seizures, as well as the biggest seizure of illegally grown tobacco in Australian history.
For "balance", he interviews Northern Ireland's former chief constable, now working at BAT, who says that plain packaging will exacerbate the black market. This interview, however, is preceded with a voice over saying that "it is a measure of the importance of the smuggling argument to BAT that it's signed up Northern Ireland's former chief constable as a consultant." It could, of course, be a measure of the threat of smuggling to BAT's business rather than the importance of the smuggling argument, but Taylor does not consider that possibility.
I seriously doubt plain packaging on tobacco products will have an effect on the number of people who start smoking #BurningDesire
— Anna (@AnnaSomerfield) May 29, 2014
Taylor's coup de grace to the smuggling 'argument' comes from Kate Pike, an employee of Trading Standards, who is unusually forthright in her support of plain packaging. Not only does she reject the idea that plain packs will drive the black market, she even—contrary to all the evidence—rejects the idea that tax rises drive the black market. Taylor dismisses industry initiatives to help retailers enforce the ban on selling cigarettes to minors (weirdly, he calls these efforts "lobbying by another name"). Pike agrees. She says that the only thing that will reduce underage smoking is the removal of brands from cigarette packs. Back of the net!
But Kate Pike is not just any employee of Trading Standards. Taylor doesn't mention it, but she also happens to be an employee of the aforementioned Tobacco Free Futures. What a small world!
The programme ends with Mike Daube calling for yet another raft of measures to follow in the wake of plain packaging so long as they pass his ridiculous 'scream test'. John Britton calls for outdoor smoking bans and—despite expressing concern earlier in the documentary about smoking being concentrated amongst the 'most disadvantaged and marginalised'—recommends making cigarettes £20 a pack. They're all heart, aren't they?
In the next episode, we are promised a discussion of "what BAT calls harm reduction". Taylor will be looking at e-cigarettes which, he eagerly points out, "critics say are a smokescreen". I think we can guess how that's going to go.
'This is what the tobacco industry calls harm reduction' - no, this is what everybody calls harm reduction #burningdesire
— Rory Morrison (@rorymorr) May 29, 2014
If you'd like to complain to the BBC about this shameless piece of propaganda being shown the week before the Queen's speech, you can do so here.