Tuesday 30 September 2014

A late reply to Irish plain pack nonsense

Before I went to Australia last month, I wrote a letter to the Irish Times after they published a particularly silly article by Luke Clancy of ASH Ireland. They didn't published it (this is becoming a habit with Irish newspapers) so, very belatedly, here it is...

Nobody should be surprised that Professor Luke Clancy would claim (Irish Times, August 15) that plain packaging of cigarettes “works”, but to support his assertion he cites a number of statistics which should be taking their case to the United Nations Committee on Torture, such has been their mistreatment at the hands of the proponents of plain packaging.

In Professor Clancy’s rush to misquote one part of an official Australian Government report on smoking prevalence, he neglected to even mention another part of it. The less useful aspect, from his perspective, of the Australian household survey shows that the number of daily smokers in Australia between the ages of 12 and 17 – the very cohort that plain packaging is supposed to turn off cigarettes - has increased from 2.5 per cent to 3.7 per cent.

This is despite what Luke Clancy wrote last Friday: “All research to date shows packaging is central in attracting children to tobacco. When stripped of their alluring colours and logos and replaced with textual graphic and health warnings, the packages will transform the relationship between teenagers and tobacco.” The relationship has indeed been transformed. There are now thousands more teenagers having a relationship with tobacco, according to the Australian government.

It should be said that the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare study is carried out every three years with the latest covering 2010-2013. Since plain packs were only introduced in December 2012, campaigners have derived their conclusions about a policy that was only in effect for one third of the survey period. This is more than a little disingenuous, but if Professor Clancy is going to claim that plain packaging is responsible for the “fastest decline in smoking rates in over 20 years” (it’s not, but more on that below) then he equally has to accept that plain packaging is responsible for a rise in teen smoking.

Clancy also neglects to mention that there was a whopping 25 per cent tax hike on tobacco in 2010 which the government itself predicted would reduce the number of smokers "in the order of 2 to 3 per cent” or around 87,000 Australians.

The actual drop in overall smoking prevalence in the three years from 2010 to 2013 was 2.3 percentage points – perfectly consistent with the steady downward trend that has been in existence for many years and which seems to have been totally unaffected by plain packaging. This decline was not even the biggest decline in the last 15 years, let alone the last 20. There was a greater decline in smoking rates between 1998 and 2001 (of 2.4 percentage points).

Clancy disguises this by looking at percentage differences between the percentages rather than looking at the decline amongst the whole population. This is statistical trickery. As smoking rates get lower, it is a mathematical inevitably that an identical decline in the number of smokers will appear to have a larger effect in relative terms. For example, a two percentage point decline in a place where 50 per cent of the population smokes represents a relative decline of four percent, as Clancy defines it, whereas the same decline in a place where ten per cent of the population smokes would represent a 20 per cent decline. But the reduction in the number of smokers is the same in both examples.

Clancy also misrepresents Australian Bureau of Statistics’ data showing a decline in tobacco sales during the first year of plain packaging (December 2012-November 2013). Far from indicating a 3.4 per cent decline (which would not be unusual in any case) the data show that the fall in sales was much smaller (0.9 per cent) in the first year of plain packaging than it was the year before (3.4 per cent). For that matter, it was smaller than the year before that (7.1 per cent) and the year before that (2.5 per cent).

Incidentally, Professor Clancy wrote last week: “It has been reported that the Bill has gone to the EU, as is required practice and that it will be delayed by Europe. It is difficult to see why this is assumed and why is it [sic] reported as seemingly inevitable.” These two sentences illustrate just how out-of-touch Professor Clancy is. The reason that it was reported that the European delay is “inevitable” is that it is a fact. (Newspapers generally strive to report facts - the same cannot always be said of single issue campaigners).

The Bill was notified to Europe in mid-June and, if there were no objections, would have been back with the Irish government by mid-September. There have been a number of very strenuous objections from governments (administrations that haven’t been taken in by Professor Clancy’s distorted data) so the European Commission has doubled the standstill period for the legislation and told the Irish government it cannot proceed next month as it had planned.

It’s that simple Professor. Look it up.

And, for those who need visual stimulation, here's that plain packaging miracle (the "vaccine for lung cancer" - copyright Simon Chapman) in full...

That's right. It did bugger all.

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