It really has been a very bad week for the key pillar of tobacco industry campaigning – the idea that introducing standardised packaging for tobacco, or indeed most other attempts at regulation, will simply aid smugglers and counterfeiters and boost the illicit trade.
First of all Members of the European Parliament agreed to take forward new regulations under the Tobacco Products Directive. This includes strong measures on tracking and tracing tobacco, so that the product can be followed as it travels along the supply chain. This is in line with our commitments under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (of which the EU is a signatory) – and a more robust approach than the codentify system – supported by the tobacco companies, but considered weak by many others.
Then we had the Public Accounts Committee at Westminster accusing the tobacco companies of fuelling the black market by oversupplying European countries, leaving the surplus available for smugglers to bring back in free of tax. The Committee Chair, Margaret Hodge MP, expressed concern that Her Majestys Revenue and Customs (HMRC) knew about this industry practice but has so far failed to challenge them.
Then, with impeccable timing, HMRC themselves produced this year’s analysis of the illicit trade, with the increase so often predicted by the industry and its friends once again failing to appear.
Let’s have a look at some examples of the stories on illicit that have mysteriously popped up in the media:
– A September media story from tobacco giant Philip Morris suggested illicit cigarettes in Dundee rose from 16.2% in 2011 to more than 22% in early 2013
– Another study funded by Philip Morris made its way into the media in March, claiming one in four cigarettes smoked in Britain to be illicit, this time up from 19.3% the previous year. “Boom in the sale of illicit cigarettes” was the Times headline
Elsewhere the Tobacco Manufacturers Association (paid for by three big tobacco companies) responded to the Westminster All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health investigation into the illicit trade saying “We anticipate that the 2011/2012 HMRC data will replicate the trend identified in the EPS data and show an upturn in non UK duty paid cigarette consumption, highlighting further lost tax revenues to the Government.” (the EPS data is information from the tobacco companies)
And of course this blog has already reviewed some very dubious use of figures by the Tobacco Retailers Alliance (also paid for by the three tobacco companies) to claim that illicit tobacco is threatening the closure of huge swathes of the retail sector.
In actual fact the figure for illicit cigarettes remained static at 9%, having declined steadily from 21% in 2000. Will these industry voices now hold back from further media headlines trumpeting the rise of illicit? Probably not, as they certainly weren’t put off when last year’s figures showed illicit tobacco declining.
This week’s last piece of bad news for the tobacco companies was the update from Stirling University, reviewing 17 new pieces of published research into the effects of introducing plain, standardised packaging for tobacco products. With this new work we now have 54 academic-standard studies which consistently show that standardised packaging will make tobacco products less appealing, particularly to young people. We’ve just about run out of ways to test this idea now and it has passed with flying colours.
I do not want to downplay the seriousness of the issue. Illicit tobacco is a real concern in that it bypasses various elements of tobacco regulation (such as no sales to under 18s) which we have fought long and hard for. But exaggerating the threat from the illicit market, in an attempt to generate scare stories in order to derail standard packs, has been exposed for what it is – the desperation of an amoral industry faced with a well-evidenced and popular measure to protect children from its addictive and lethal products. Let’s move on.