Friday 10 August 2012

A timely plain packaging study

As the plain packaging consultation finally grinds to a halt, I was interviewed by the Voice of Russia for a comment about where the whole thing is likely to lead. The link's here—do listen to the audio as the transcript is inaccurate.

Also speaking was Olivia Maynard, one of Linda Bauld's postgraduate students from Bristol University, who has produced another chunk of quasi-science claiming to show that plain packaging "encourages young smokers to heed health warnings". It does not nothing of the sort, of course. The research—which was barely reported in the media—was merely the latest in a series of studies which use eye-tracking technology to show that plain packs might make people look at health warnings for fractionally longer than normal packs do.

The glaring problem with this as a "plain packaging will reduce smoking" argument is that it does not actually show that people will "heed" the warnings even if they do look at them for 0.1 second longer. In the interview, Maynard makes the puerile claim that "when you look at something more, you understand it more", as if the phrase 'Smoking Kills' was an enigmatic riddle requiring deep meditation. In truth, knowledge about the hazards of smoking is universal and is well-engrained by the age of about seven. People don't start smoking because they think cigarettes have got vitamin C in them.

For the record, Dr Tim Holmes, of Royal Holloway (University of London) happens to be an expert in eye-tracking experiments and has no ties to either the tobacco industry or the anti-tobacco industry. When he conducted a similar experiment, his research found...

...the non-smokers looked at the warning messages much less than the other participants, and there was no difference between plain and branded package designs in the amount of time spent looking at the warning message.

Now, it’s great that the right people are looking more at the warning message, but if this doesn’t result in an increased risk perception then surely the messages aren’t doing their job! Moreover, if removing the brand identity doesn’t change the way people look at the packets then maybe plain packaging, which will be costly to implement, isn’t the best of ideas.

As far as I know, Dr Holmes has yet to publish his research and one can hardly blame him from wanting to avoid the smears and slurs that will inevitably come his way if he does. As for Bauld's team at the University of Bristol, it is quite shameless that this sort of "science" is being press released at such a politically convenient time and that the "scientist" responsible is an overt advocate for the policy in question. As it happens, I remember Ms Maynard as one of the starry-eyed true believers who sat front and centre at the debate I spoke at in Bristol on the same subject. Whilst I cannot blame her for walking the gold-plated path of tobakko kontrol in this challenging job market, neither her interview nor her background are suggestive of a disinterested academic.

Meanwhile, after the Hands Off Our Packs campaign announced that they had 235,000 signatories, the pro-plain campaign announced they had... [drum roll] ... 235,000 signatories. What a coincidence, eh?


NJS said...

I think that good tobacco products should carry the additional warning: ''THIS TOBACCO PRODUCT CAN GIVE YOU SERIOUS ENJOYMENT AND MIGHT EVEN WOO THE NOSTRILS OF THE GODS.''

Anonymous said...

People don't start smoking because they think cigarettes have got vitamin C in them.

But they might start smoking because they think cigarettes have got vitamin B3 (nicotinic acid, also known as niacin) in them.