Tuesday 22 July 2014

Plain packaging porky pies

In the last post—about the deceitful claim that there has been a "huge drop" in smoking rates since plain packaging was introduced in Australia—I mentioned that no UK newspapers had been dumb enough to report this propaganda. That was true at the time of writing, but, in the end, the Daily Mail and the Financial Times fell for it.

The Mail will print anything, but I expect more from the FT so I was pleased to see that they have at least published a couple of letters to help put the record straight...

Sir, Your report of the fall in smoking rates in Australia (“Australia smoking rates tumble after plain packaging shift”, FT.com, July 17) painted the results as strong evidence that plain packaging is causally linked to smoking prevalence. It quoted advocates who described the new data as “really dramatic and exceptionally encouraging” and likened plain packaging to the discovery of a vaccine against lung cancer.

When the representatives of Imperial Tobacco cast doubts on this interpretation in the penultimate line, my reaction was: “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

But I was troubled that the only data cited were from 2010 and 2013 and not from earlier in the series of data points. Few, I assume, went to the trouble of accessing the survey. It is a pity your report did not include this graph from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which makes it more difficult to make the link between plain packaging and smoking rates.

Readers should be trusted with analysis of data ourselves, instead of having lobby groups do it for us.

Dr Eoin O’Malley, Dublin City University, Ireland

There is also a letter from the managing director of JTI...

Sir, As a director of the second largest tobacco company in the UK, I am concerned by some of the misleading statements by tobacco control lobbyists reported in your article “Australia smoking rates tumble after plain-packaging shift”, FT.com, July 17).

In fact, the recent Australian smoking prevalence data reinforce the fact that plain packaging does not work.

Daily smoking prevalence declined by 2.3 per cent between 2010 and 2013, consistent with the pre-existing trend. The decrease between the introduction of plain packaging in December 2012 and December 2013 cannot be measured because that level of detail is not available. It is wrong to suggest plain packaging has worked, let alone to report that smoking rates have tumbled as a result.

The data also show that underage smoking has increased in the same period, reversing previous declines. While this obviously undermines the claims of the tobacco control lobbyists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that plain packaging led to the increase. Pretending otherwise would be a misrepresentation of the statistics to fit an ideology. Such junk advocacy should not form part of public policy debate and is no substitute for robust evidence.

Daniel Torras, Managing Director, JTI UK

The point about underage smoking is a good one. As Dick Puddlecote mentioned recently, the same data set that shows the - cough - "huge drop" also shows a rise in underage smoking between 2010 and 2013.

It is also worth noting that ASH are also lying when they claim that "Standardised packaging is the only new policy intervention over this time period and is therefore the most likely reason for the significant fall in smoking prevalence." In fact, there was a 25 per cent tax hike on tobacco in April 2010 which the Australian health minister specifically predicted would cause 2 to 3 per cent of smokers to quit.

There has subsequently been another tax hike (of 12.5 per cent) in December 2013 which led to a fall in (legal) tobacco consumption in the first quarter of this year. As mentioned in a previous post, this tax rise spared the blushes of anti-smoking campaigners because the data clearly show tobacco consumption rising in the first year of plain packaging (2013). Naturally, they ignored the 2013 data and claimed that the decline that followed the tax rise was the result of plain packaging.

All in all, just another week of porky pies in the world of tobacco control.

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