Monday, 5 February 2018

Plain packaging in France: another non-event

Back in 2013, there was a flurry of studies published in the likes of Tobacco Control claiming a dramatic and immediate impact from plain packaging (which had been introduced at the end of 2012). One of them claimed that smokers were more likely to think about quitting if their packs were 'plain'. Another one claimed that there was a rise in the number of calls to quit-lines after plain packaging was introduced.

A whole cottage industry developed, with Melanie Wakefield at its centre, to look for evidence that plain packaging had an effect on smokers as soon as it was introduced. And yet, whatever smokers might have said in surveys, the hard fact of the matter is that cigarette sales rose in 2013 for the first time in years.

Rising cigarette consumption is hardly what you would expect to see if plain packaging had led to smokers quitting in droves, especially since there is also evidence of rising illicit tobacco consumption at the same time. And we now know from official statistics that the smoking rate did not decline between 2013 and 2016.

This would be very awkward for the tobacco control lobby if it was an evidence-based enterprise, but it isn't and so the WHO simply asserts that: 'Studies are conclusive: plain packaging of tobacco works'.
Since plain packaging was introduced in France and the UK, there have been a surprisingly few studies claiming an immediate impact of the policy. In fact, I haven't seen any. Maybe they are in the post, or maybe 'public health' academics don't want to leave more hostages to fortune.

However, we had a report from France last May claiming that cigarette sales had risen in the few first months of plain packaging, and in November the French health minister made a remarkably candid admission to parliament, saying 'the neutral package did not reduce the official sale of tobacco'.

We now have the tobacco sales figures from France which confirm that more cigarettes were sold in the first six months of 2017 than in either of the two previous years.

Cigarette sales fell slightly in the second half of the year and overall sales in 2017 were 44,614 million, compared to 44,926 million in 2016. This is a decline of 0.7%. To put that in context, the decline between 2015 and 2016 was 1.2%.

The best that can be said about plain packaging in France is that it did not lead to an actual rise in cigarette sales in its first year, but we should remember how unusual it is to see an annual sales increase in developed countries. The figures from France are consistent with the hypothesis that plain packaging has no more effect than doing nothing.

Anti-smoking campaigners seem to have more or less abandoned the claim that plain packaging has an effect on hard outcomes such as smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption in the short term. They have fallen back on the argument that the policy is part of a long-term strategy that will pay off after twenty years or so. This is convenient because it means that their claims are essentially unfalsifiable. Even after twenty years, it will not be possible to disentangle the putative effects of plain packaging from other factors and, if things go according to plan, most countries will have plain packaging by then anyway (assuming that cigarettes are even legal).

In the meantime, we are supposed to put out trust in those nice, honest anti-smoking people who reckon that plain packaging is the way to go. 

And yet, a supposedly game-changing policy like this should have some measurable effect within a year or two, surely? Throughout the campaign for plain packs in the UK, we were constantly told that 'more than 200,000 children start smoking every year' and that we need 'plain, standardised packs as soon as possible'. The obvious implication was that fewer people would smoke if plain packaging was introduced. But there is no evidence that this has happened in any country that has experimented with plain packaging and the same organisations are now campaigning for other policies with the same (bogus) figure:

“While we are glad to see developing policy such as plain cigarette packaging and increased taxation on tobacco, it is still worrying that more than 200,000 children and young people take up smoking..."

This is the modus operandi of the 'public health' lobby: campaign frantically for a supposedly essential policy, wear down politicians until they introduce it and then move on to another campaign as if nothing has happened.

And with plain packaging, nothing does happen. It's a total waste of time. France is now doing what Australia did after the failure of the policy became obvious by introducing massive increases in tobacco duty. No doubt this will have an impact on the sale of tobacco from legal retailers in France. Retailers in neighbouring Belgium and Spain, meanwhile, will be rubbing their hands with glee.

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