Thursday 21 March 2013

The mess of the plain packs consultation

As reported in The Times and by Guido Fawkes, Rupert Darwall has published a report looking at the farcical plain packs consultation. Regular readers will know that the Department of Health's consultation has been biased to the point of absurdity, with leading questions, partisan activists brought in as experts and taxpayers' money spent on cheer-leading. Darwall argues that the whole thing was "deliberately framed to garner support for plain packaging" and that the "flaws in the consultation are sufficiently extensive as to cast doubt on whether it is anything more than an exercise in going through the motions to justify a pre-determined conclusion."

The report was funded by Philip Morris, as the author has gone out of his way to make clear. For those who like to throw ad homs about, that will be enough to justify their refusal to even read it, but for those who prefer to make judgements based on evidence, there are some juicy facts to enjoy.

Dick Puddlecote has already flagged up some of the highlights and I recommend you read his post. There is, however, much more to be said.

To start with, Darwall notes the recent stalling of smoking's decline...

The apparent stalling in the decline of smoking occurred during a period of increasingly tight tobacco controls. Like the 1998 White Paper, the 2011 Tobacco Control Plan does not analyse the effectiveness of individual measures, even though after more than a decade, the evidence is clearer now than it was then: Not all public health initiatives designed to curb smoking work.

Anyone who is serious about finding the best ways to discourage teen smoking would look for best practice elsewhere. If they did so, they would see that graphic health warning, display bans and other simplistic neo-prohibitionist policies are not the answer...

Why is it that the UK has nearly double the rate of young smokers compared to the US (23% vs.12%) despite having much more prominent health warnings – the US only requires textual health warnings on one side of the packet?

It is, on the face of it, remarkable that despite three of the last four years showing no drop in the UK's smoking rate there has been no moratorium and no reassessment of the neo-prohibitionist model (see my last post about Ireland for evidence that tobacco control is not a results-driven business). This conspicuous lack of success seems not to worry the public health industry. Instead they divert our attention by pointing to some phantom success just around the corner, in this case plain packaging, but the fundamental rationale behind the policy is highly dubious...

The consultation exercise rests on the unstated assumption that branded cigarette packaging is a factor that turns non-smokers into smokers and prevents smokers from trying to quit. Whether the assumption is valid is critical to the efficacy of the proposed policy. If it is not, the policy will not cut smoking.

A 116-page review commissioned by the DH from the University of Stirling (the Stirling University review) came to the trivially true conclusion that tobacco companies try to make their packaging attractive, but presented no evidence as to whether packaging was a factor in people starting smoking or is an obstacle to them quitting.

The consultation does not ask the critical question:

Is branded cigarette packaging a means of attracting new smokers and dissuading existing ones from giving up?

Or is it a competitive tool used by tobacco companies to win market share and enable them to charge premium prices?

Evidence that tobacco companies make significant investments in packaging and branding cannot answer the question because it doesn't answer tell us anything about the effect on the purchaser's decision to buy and smoke cigarettes.

This is an important point because it gets to the heart of the neo-prohibitionists' bone-headed belief that people start smoking as a result of packaging and, therefore, that tobacco companies somehow design their packaging in a way that "entices" non-smokers. But insofar as the branding of different cigarettes has a purpose, it is to imply a higher value for more pricey brands. Darwall cites evidence about alcohol advertising in France...

According to the 1996 study, the main impact of advertising is to persuade consumers to trade up to more expensive, higher quality brands.'


If the parallel with the drinks industry holds, then the de-branding of cigarette packets might cause a shift in the opposite direction with an associated volume effect.

So if branding disappears, prices fall and smoking increases.

A simpleton like Simon Chapman would argue that this cannot be so, because if tobacco companies believed that plain packaging would lead to more smoking they would not oppose it. But they do oppose it, therefore plain packaging must lead to less smoking. QED.

This kind of logic displays a woeful naïveté about why the tobacco industry is profitable. It does not depend on more smoking, it depends on wider margins. As pampered academics, Hastings and Chapman cannot understand the mechanics of business and Darwall lists this shortcoming as one of the reasons they failed to get to grips with plain packaging...

Not carrying out any analysis of the economics of the tobacco industry to find out why its profitability and shareholder returns have been so strong during a period of tightening tobacco controls and the role of brands in supporting high prices in a declining volume market, findings which would contradict the premise of the policy.

Moreover, Darwall notes that the assumption of Hastings et al. that packaging is a factor in smoking initiation has not been an assumption in previous Department of Health documents...

The causes as to why teens and young people start smoking is a subject of extensive research and should constitute the natural starting point for an objective policy analysis. The 1998 White Paper noted that young people start smoking for a variety of reasons (it did not, however, mention cigarette packaging as one of them).

Indeed. And...

In 2009, the DH concluded there was insufficiently robust evidence to support a move to plain packaging. The 2012 consultation does not spell out how the evidence might have changed since 2009.

The evidence has changed very little. Darwall shows that the number of studies increased by just one after 2009. The evidence did not change, but the people assessing it did. Enter Gerard Hastings, a social scientist from the far-left with a penchant for state control and a deep hatred of corporations. Hastings and his cohorts at Stirling University authored a third of the 37 studies that were assessed in the consultation document and they were put at the head of table when it came to analysing the evidence for plain packaging. They also analysed the evidence for graphic warnings, which a US judge dismissed as speculation and conjecture last year. Darwall rightly draws attention to...

...the differences between what is viewed as evidence by a court and by the social scientists at Stirling University. Based on essentially the same material as that reviewed by the United States Court of Appeals three years later, which it characterized as speculation and conjecture, the 2009 Stirling University review claimed:

'There is solid research evidence to show that health warnings do deliver real health benefits.’

Hastings' tendency to draw confident conclusions from feeble evidence is a running theme in his work for the Department of Health on plain packaging. When Darwall looks at the one significant new study that appeared post-2009, he finds that it is by no means compelling...

All the study shows is that smokers are willing to pay more for branded cigarettes compared to de-branded packs with pictorial health warnings. The results say nothing about how many cigarettes they might smoke from branded compared to plain packs with pictorial health warnings. The  authors’  conclusion  about  a  reduction  in  demand  for   cigarettes reflects a fundamental misconception, confusing the perceived value of the branded pack compared to a plain pack and  smokers’  demand  for  cigarettes.

The inability of anti-smoking campaigners-cum-researchers to distinguish between revealed and stated preferences has led them up many blind alleys in recent years. I was interested to see this quiet admission from the Department of Health dated 2012...

‘Although many participants felt the smokefree legislation would be likely to encourage them to cut back on the number of cigarettes they smoked, there was a disparity between intentions and actions.'

In other words—and as we have seen before—it didn't work.

There is much more of this. Do go read the whole report.


proglodyte said...

I argue that smoking rates may have actually increased since the gloves came off. The denormalised are perhaps realising that even admitting to smoking is not a good idea - particularly to their own doctors, who could use that knowledge to exert pressure to quit by threatening to withhold certain health treatments.

It's clear that huge numbers of smokers buy illegally (who the fuck cares what kind of pack rolling baccy comes in, most are near as dammit plain packaged as it is?). In effect, the average consumer spending on tobacco may have actually dropped in recent years, totally unrelated overall smoking rates. Indeed, high taxes merely provide a greater incentive to smuggle, thus making it much easier (as well as more cost effective) for smokers to source illicit tobacco. And, as any smoker would probably testify, 'like for like' but cheaper baccy provides extra satisfaction. Suppose the same could be said for everything really....

nisakiman said...

I've said this several times before on various blogs, but I am convinced the official smoking prevalence figures are way off the mark, probably because as prog states above, the current climate surrounding smoking predicates denial of the habit. As an observer in a popular tourist destination country where there is no social stigma attached to smoking, and the EU mandated ban is widely ignored, my (admittedly unscientific) estimate of smoking prevalence among the (mostly) British tourists I see here I would put at about 60%. Perhaps there tends to be a preponderance of C1, C2 and D, but we also see a substantial number of AB as well. If I was to smooth the figure out over the social spectrum, I would guess at about 40%+ of Brits who are smokers, albeit some of them 'social smokers'.

proglodyte said...

TC tends to be in denial re social smoking. Doesn't sit well with the claim that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on earth. By using their logic, one would expect everyone who's been exposed to SHS to be addicts. On the other hand, I think the absence of smoke in pubs is partly why many non smokers have abandoned them. No atmosphere, no buzz. Dull places for dull people.

timbone said...

As I said on Dick Puddlecote's blog, many, no all of the anti tobacco industry (inc DoH) stick their fingers in their ears and say "It was commisioned by Philip Morris. So what. The devil himself could have commisioned it for all I care, fact is fact.

I was also impressed by Rupert Darwall's thoroughness. He included the 1998 White Paper in his research, quoting it or it's contents several times. The 1998 White Paper was, on the whole, a very sensible collation and recommendation. It was the impatience of the tobacco control industry (and the EU directives) who were not content with the logical timing of putting into place such recommendations. They pushed through divisive, counter productive measures such as the smoking ban, grasphic warnings, hidden displays and now an attempt at standardised packaging.

Anonymous said...


The Radio 4 Women’s Hour presenter is arrested in connection with Operation Willow, the investigation prompted by the Hattie Jacques health abuse scandal, it is claimed.

The eye-witness source says Murray was questioned on Wednesday by detectives working on Operation Willow, the national investigation prompted by the Hattie Jacques health abuse scandal.

A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said a 60-something-year-old woman had been "arrested on suspicion of pregnancy offences in connection with allegations made to Operation Willow".

The source says Murray was arrested, along with her husband and that “both appeared overweight” and “blubbered under the pressure of the interrogation.”

The police spokeswoman said that complaints have been made by two individuals who were in their mid-20s at the time of the alleged offences and admit that at that time they both smoked and drank “casually” but ate organic “whenever possible.”

Police said the two suspects were re-released on bail “until some later date”.

So far 48 people have been arrested under Operation Willow.

Solicitor Phillip Morris-Bacon, thought to represent Murray as well as other celebrities such as Jo Brand and Harriet Harman, issued a statement in response to claims made by a vulnerable victim who cannot be named for legal reasons, saying her clients "vigorously deny any allegation that they ate processed meat or ‘had a good time’ during the pregnancies of their children.”

Morris-Bacon added: "many of my clients’ children are now grown up and are healthy and physically active."

A neighbour of one well-known celebrity couple said their children appeared “obese and at the same time wan” and left home “as soon as they were old enough.”

Jonathan Bagley said...

Cigarettes are also a lot cheaper in most of the USA.