As we wait for publication of the Westminster Government’s proposals for introducing plain, standardised packaging for tobacco products, ASH Scotland is warning about the latest piece of tobacco company astro-turfing against this well-evidenced child protection measure. “Astroturfing” is the name given to a fake grassroots campaign generated on behalf of a big commercial interest.
An Edinburgh-based public relations company (Halogen Communications) in the pay of Philip Morris International (PMI) has convinced local newsagents to criticise public health initiatives and make the alarming claim that they will “kill” small businesses and communities.
The tobacco company campaign pushes the message that the illicit tobacco market is “rife”, “growing”, or “burgeoning”. Now local shopkeepers can be forgiven for not knowing that the illicit market has halved since 2000, but the tobacco industry figures behind the campaign know it full well. Still, putting these words into the mouths of local shopkeepers allows the tobacco industry to spread this idea without having to directly make the false claim themselves. Clever, eh? It also distracts attention from inconvenient academic research, including the recent review suggesting almost a quarter of the illicit cigarette market in Europe is made up of PMI’s own products.
Funnily enough the local retailers also faithfully repeated industry messages about plain packaging boosting the illicit market. The recently produced report of the Chantler review concluded that he was “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.
Speaking to the Chantler Review, Mark Connell of British American Tobacco said: “One of the things that we did say… is that there would be an increase in counterfeit of the standardised packaging. In other words, the legislation was virtually a blueprint that was given to counterfeiters… that hasn’t happened, well it may have happened in small quantities…” “Our biggest brand which was counterfeited all the time, very professionally I have to say, at least contained a health warning and a graphic health warning”. Review team: “have you actually seen a reduction in counterfeit?” Mr Connell: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”
And the moral of the story? Look for the motivation and interests behind the dramatic headline. On which note I will leave you with the following to consider:
Which groups support introducing standard packs?
Children in Scotland, British Heart Foundation, ASH Scotland, Scottish Youth Parliament, Barnardo’s, British Lung Foundation, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, British Medical Association, Cancer Research UK, Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh, Youthlink Scotland……
Which groups oppose introducing standard packs?
FOREST, Scottish Grocers’ Federation, Scottish Wholesale Association, Tobacco Manufacturers Association, Tobacco Retailers Alliance……
Which groups with no commercial interest in selling tobacco or financial links to tobacco companies oppose introducing standard packs?
Well, we would be interested to know.