Wednesday 4 April 2012

Prohibitionist accidentally tells the truth

One of the main arguments made in favour of plain packaging—first in Australia and now in the UK—is that the tobacco industry strongly opposes it.

OK, it's not an argument as such, but in these intellectually backward times, saying "the industry opposes it, therefore it must be good" could be mistaken for one. It is true that the industry went to some lengths campaigning against it in Oz and some of the cigarette companies are now suing the Australian government. Pro-plain pack campaigners portray their opposition as an admission that the policy will reduce the smoking rate.

But this is a fallacy. It assumes that industry (any industry) depends on volume and turnover, when it actually depends on profit. The removal of branding is likely to have a negative effect on profit margins, as I explained in the booklet I wrote for the Adam Smith Institute...

It is no secret that many consumer goods are virtually identical and can only be distinguished by their brand names. Sometimes this fact is so well known that manufacturers make little attempt to conceal it (petrol and salt, for example, are sold with minimal branding), but in most cases industries rely on building a trusted brand in the hope that consumers will pay a premium. Paracetamol, for example, can be bought for a few pence in a generic box or for considerably more in a glossier box with a well-advertised brand name. Bottles of mineral water compete in a multi-billion pound market on little more than brand recognition.

Knowing the power of packaging to imply quality, companies often produce two barely distinguishable versions of the same product and give the budget brand a consciously inexpensive-looking package, even though it would cost no more to make it look glitzier. The same is true of cigarettes which are branded and packaged according to the price point. One in two smokers cannot distinguish between similar cigarettes in blind trials and it is reasonable to expect many of them to downgrade to cheaper brands under a regime of plain packaging. This is the main reason the tobacco industry is so vehemently opposed to plain packaging: its top brands are worth billions of pounds and any government which misappropriates them can expect to be sued, as is already happening in Australia.

I then addressed the question of whether this would be a bad thing. For the zealots fighting their bogus David and Goliath battle with 'Big Tobacco', anything that annoys the enemy is desirable, but what are the public health implications of people turning to cheaper cigarettes?

Should we care if cigarette companies becomes less profitable and are only able to compete on price? If smokers buy cheaper cigarettes from the licit and illicit market, perhaps we should. Price is widely seen as the single most important factor in influencing cigarette consumption, and yet here is a policy that will reduce demand for the most expensive brands, that will encourage the industry to compete by lowering prices and which is likely to stimulate the black market. For the zealots of the anti-tobacco industry, anything that harms Big Tobacco’s profits is a good thing, but in this instance, what is bad for the tobacco industry is also likely to be bad for public health.

I do not claim to be the first person to have pointed all this out. It is fairly obvious. But since the arguments in favour of plain packaging are so weak, its proponents have had to rely on the "industry doesn't like it" angle rather heavily. None more so than scrotum-faced head-banger Simon Chapman, a man recently described by Carl at Ep-ology in terms which are firm but fair.

He is the perfect storm of a card-carrying "public health" person who is harmful to both public health science and the public's health: terrible at scientific/analytic reasoning, and freely promotes junk science; believes that top-down authority, particularly promoting prohibition, is the defining characteristic of public health; will make any sciencey claim that seems to support his political positions, regardless of the lack of scientific support; displays no apparent humanitarian concern despite working in a field that can only be justified by such; is the worst kind of gadfly (parachuting in to topic areas he clearly knows nothing about and making sweeping declarations as if he is an expert); and does not even seem to display much more scientific expertise on tobacco, the subject he has been working on for decades.

He also has an unfortunate habit of listening to the voices in his head and then repeating their words out loud (or on Twitter). This has led to some amusing moments. Today, when anyone criticises his pet project of plain packaging - which he hopes will make him a footnote in history - he plays them the same old tune...

The distinction between volume and profit has been explained to him so many times that we can only assume he is feigning ignorance of it. But lo and behold, last month it seemed that the penny had finally dropped when he was interviewed in the Australian press:

"I received an internal BATA training DVD in the mail about 2002, which featured David Crow [former marketing director, now managing director, of BATA] explaining to his team that the arse would continue to fall out of the market, and that the only hope was to push premium brands which gave them stratospheric profit margins."

"This explains a lot about why they fear plain packaging, because they will struggle to convince smokers that it's sensible to pay more for products that actually only look better because of their box."

By George, I think he's worked it out. And the truth shall set you free! Does this mean that Simple Simon will finally drop this infantile argument? Judging by yesterday's Twitter feed, it seems not...

Hopeless case or hopeless liar? You be the judge.


Pat Nurse MA said...

Smokerphobic hysteric Simon Chapman is a nut who should be kept as far away from any public health policy as possible. He has only hate and lies to offer that would get any other normal person prosecuted ... oh, but I forgot he's not normal. He's made weird and coooky "normal" as per his own mental health issue.

Anonymous said...

In a rare moment of candour, Simon Chapman admitted on Twitter that 'the whole idea' behind plain packaging is to kill the tobacco industry.

Anonymous said...

You maybe interested in this URL too, which is direct from the Sydney Morning Herald with the same article.

I also note that on the University of Sydney's website page you can comment on plain packaging. :)

timbone said...

Non/antismoking professionals know nothing about what is in a tobacco product. To suggest that the packaging alone determines the cost is pure ignorance. Martin Dockrell made this clear when he said that all cigarettes taste the same.
If you compare Tesco Finest with Tesco own brand and Tesco Value, it is clear that the packaging and content are linked.
These anti smoking eugenicists are ignorant of what counterfeit tobacco is. I once bought 200 B&H, thinking they were normal duty free. I smoked about 50 of them and thew the rest away. My body told me that there was somewthing wrong.
My body tells me that a good hand rolling tobacco has less unwanted chemicals than a factory made cigarette. My body tells me that an expensive factory made cigarette is nicer to me than a cheap one.
Tobacco Control is led by people who know nothing about tobacco.