A bad day at the office for Big Tobacco Reply

It really wasn’t a good day for the tobacco companies and their allies.

The report of Sir Cyril Chantler’s independent review into plain, standardised packaging, which was released yesterday, rejects their arguments, concludes that plain packs should be effective and leaves their campaign in tatters.

Sir Cyril is a very eminent retired paediatrician. He was given a brief to consider the public health impacts of requiring tobacco products to be sold in plain, standardised packaging:

“taking into account existing and any fresh evidence, as to whether or not the introduction of standardised packaging is likely to have an effect on public health (and what any effect might be), in particular in relation to the health of children.”

He himself describes how he took this brief forwards as that he:

“would consider evidence on whether standardised packaging is likely to lead to a decrease in tobacco consumption, including in particular the risk of children becoming addicted. I started from the uncontroversial premise that any such decrease will have a positive impact on public health.”

He and his team did indeed review the available evidence. He visited Australia to hear about their experience as the first country to introduce plain packs in December 2012. He even met with representatives of the tobacco industry to hear their side of the story (thus contravening Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which sets out that the tobacco industry should not be afforded stakeholder status in a public health discussion).

His report was announced to the House of Commons in a statement by Public Health Minister Jane Ellison MP. It must have made difficult reading for the tobacco industry and their front campaign led by FOREST, Hands Off Our Packs and a medley of retailer groups.

The tobacco industry claims that its marketing activity, including packaging, functions solely to entice adults smokers to switch between competing brands and not to appeal to young people. Not so, says Sir Cyril. This is “not plausible”.

The industry claims there is no evidence that standard packs will work to discourage youth uptake of smoking. Sir Cyril considered the evidence review led by Stirling University, which concludes that there is strong evidence that standard packs will be effective. He commissioned other academics to assess the review, who concluded that it “was robust and could be relied upon”.

He therefore comes to the conclusion that “by reducing its appeal, standardised packaging would affect smoking behaviour”. So that’s that.

In his report he also considers two of the damaging “unintended consequences” which the tobacco industry insist would accompany the introduction of plain packs.

He dismisses the notion that a reduction in premium brands and brand loyalty will result in a reduction in prices and hence an increase in tobacco consumption. Early evidence from Australia shows prices continuing to rise, both in the tax and commercial elements of the price. Sir Cyril also notes that were this to change the Government can easily restore price levels by increasing tax. If the unintended consequence is a transfer of resources from the tobacco companies to the Exchequer then I say the sooner the better.

Finally he is “not convinced” by the key industry argument that removing brands and logos would make life easier for counterfeiters and increase the illicit market. Despite his team carrying out an extensive review, and giving the industry lobbyists a golden opportunity to make their case, he finds that “There is no evidence that standardised packaging is easier to counterfeit, and indeed in Australia, hardly any counterfeit standardised packages have been found to date.” He concludes instead that “the solution to illicit use is instead to have an effective enforcement regime” – as has been the case in the UK, resulting in the illicit trade roughly halving over a period when tobacco regulation and taxes have increased.

The icing on the cake was of course the British American Tobacco employee who clearly hadn’t read the internal memo and used his big chance to influence Chantler by, err, ‘fessing up that they had actually seen a reduction in counterfeit tobacco in Australia. Funnily enough that’s not a line they’ve been pushing in their campaign.

Sir Cyril concludes that “it is in my view highly likely that standardised packaging would serve to reduce the rate of children taking up smoking and implausible that it would increase the consumption of tobacco.”

So is that game, set and match to public health? Well, the tobacco industry has taken a bit of a pummelling on the evidence and the arguments, but that’s an occupational hazard in their line of work. While their commercial imperative to recruit new generations of smokers remains they’ll be back with more millions to spend on a furious last ditch effort. With Ireland and New Zealand also in the running for second country in the world to introduce standard packs it’s now looking like an increasingly desperate rearguard action.

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