Friday, 4 December 2020

Desperate ASH demand plain packaging for rolling papers and filter tips

The tax-spongers at Action on Smoking and Health are really scraping the barrel now. Palpably desperate to find new dragons to slay, they want plain packaging for rolling paper and filter tips
If they weren't such a hateful organisation, you could almost feel sorry for them. 

The hook for this latest demand is a flimsy report from CRUK which cobbles together some junk science from the activists at Bath and Stirling Universities, Anna Gilmore being amongst them. 

The first piece of research, from Bath, falsely claims that the 'rate of decline for tobacco sales doubled around the introduction of standardised packaging'. 
On average seven million fewer sticks were sold per month pre-implementation whereas an average of 13 million fewer sticks were sold per-month post- implementation.

HMRC's tobacco bulletin keeps track of tobacco sales. It shows a steep decline in (legal) cigarette sales until 2016/17, no doubt largely thanks to the emergence of e-cigarettes, after which the downward trend slowed appreciably.
For roll-your-own tobacco, sales bottomed out in 2016/17 and have since risen by 20 per cent.

It's nigh on impossible for a credible academic to turn this pig's ear into a silk purse. And so the job was left to Anna Gilmore of Bath University's Tobacco Control Research Group, which is now awash with Bloomberg cash.
John Britton and his team of anti-smoking zealots had to reluctantly concede that the same point in a study published in 2018:

The implementation of standardized packaging legislation in the United Kingdom, which included minimum pack sizes of 20, was associated with significant increases overall in the price of manufactured cigarettes, but no clear deviation in the ongoing downward trend in total volume of cigarette sales.
Nevertheless, Gilmore and co. are once again claiming that black is white. 
The other piece of research, from Stirling University, comes to the unsurprising conclusion that tobacco companies didn't start selling cigarettes in plain packaging until they had to.
Tobacco companies used the full 12-month transition period to delay the removal of fully-branded products and gradually phase in standardised packaging.
The Stirling research actually contains some mildly interesting and useful information. Tobacco companies made sure there was plenty of branded stock on the market until the ban on selling branded cigarettes began on 20 May 2017. I don't think I saw any branded packs until 2017 and this research suggests that I wasn't alone.

Of the 20 fully branded products monitored, 18 continued to be sold throughout the transition period but some changed name. Almost all new names included a colour descriptor and adjective. 
No standardised variants were sold in the first five months. It was not until March 2017 (two months before mandatory compliance) that the average number of standardised products sold by each retailer exceeded the number of fully branded products.

So, although cigarettes had to be manufactured in plain packaging from May 2016, there can't have been any impact on consumer behaviour until 2017 because hardly any consumers had seen them. This further undermines Gilmore's study which compares sales in May 2015 to sales in April 2018. Cigarettes were only widely sold in plain packaging for a third of this period and were not even manufactured in plain packaging for the first third. 

Both the Bath and Stirling studies claim that cigarette prices 'increased as standardised packaging was implemented' in direct contradiction to the Britton et al. study mentioned above. 

All in all, it's the kind of quack science we expect from tobakko kontrol. It's a bit sad to see CRUK endorse it, but never mind. 

The report concludes that the government should ban bevelled edges on cigarette packs, extend plain packaging to filters and rolling papers, and ban the 'use of colours or other descriptors in product variant names'. 

This is desperate stuff, but if you make it to the last page, there are some telling comments.

Unresolved research questions

To date, the evidence we have on the market and industry response to standardised packaging shows that, despite tobacco industry’s tactics to undermine the effect of the legislation, this legislation has been effective in reducing tobacco sales and in tobacco industry revenues in the UK. However, there are still gaps in the academic literature that must be addressed in order to fully evaluate the impact of the legislation. While by no means an exhaustive list, the following key research gaps have been identified:

Smoking behaviours

1. What was the impact of standardised packaging of tobacco products on smoking prevalence in the UK?

2. As standardised packaging was intended to reduce youth uptake of tobacco products, what was the impact of standardised packaging on youth smoking prevalence and consumption in the UK?

In other words, they still don't know whether plain packaging works. Four years after it was introduced, you might hope they'd have an answer by now. 

Spoiler: it doesn't.

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