Plain, standardised tobacco packaging removes a major positive influence on smoking – the ability of tobacco companies to promote the glitzy brand image they want to use hook new smokers and hold on to current smokers.
Recognising that plain packs will impact on their vast profits, tobacco companies have waged a campaign to undermine the vital heath measure to prevent young people becoming smokers, and have enlisted the support of retailers by using their misinformation tactics.
Here are some of the falsehoods about plain packs disseminated by Big Tobacco and those who parrot their misinformation – and the hard evidence that stubs out the claims…
A SMUGGLERS’ CHARTER?
CLAIM Plain packaging makes counterfeiting tobacco easier
The tobacco industry and retail trade representatives regularly state as fact that standardised packaging will increase the amount of illicit product in the UK. They claim this is because so-called plain packs will be easier to copy than the current branded designs.
FACT There is no evidence plain packs will increase the amount of illicit product
Standardised packs are not really “plain” and will not be easy to copy. They will include covert markings and an independent tracking and tracing system will coincide with the introduction of standardised packaging, making it even more difficult to produce and distribute illicit packs of cigarettes and pouches of loose-leaf tobacco.
A review by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has concluded that: “We have seen no evidence to suggest the introduction of standardised packaging will have a significant impact on the overall size of the illicit market or prompt a step-change in the activity of organised crime groups.”
An independent review into plain packaging for the UK Government took expert advice from the government and Customs Service in Australia, where plain packs were introduced in December 2012. They confirmed plain packs did not appear to have had a significant impact on illegal tobacco. The Customs Service and a study by Cancer Council Victoria underlined the inaccurate claims of the tobacco industry.
The UK review also heard evidence from a representative of British American Tobacco, who indicated there had been no increased counterfeiting of cigarettes due to plain packs. When asked: “Have you actually seen a reduction in counterfeit?” he replied: “Absolutely. Absolutely”.
CLAIM Evidence about plain packs increasing illicit tobacco is based on reliable research
Evidence from four tobacco corporations to the UK’s 2012 consultation on standardised packaging was critically evaluated for its relevance and quality. This study found the tobacco companies cited no independent, peer-reviewed evidence that supported their arguments, and nearly half of the evidence was industry-connected. The conclusive findings demonstrated the industry’s evidence was of poor quality and had little relevance to the actual arguments.
CLAIM Plain packaging hasn’t been a success in Australia
FACT Plain packaging is designed to have a long-term impact on the take-up of smoking among young people rather than an immediate effect on current smoking rates. However, early findings show positive results due to plain packs.
The objectives of the legislation were:
• to reduce the appeal of smoking (especially to young people);
• to increase the impact of pack health warnings;
• and to increase people’s perceptions about the harms from smoking.
Reducing the visibility and appeal of smoking, particularly for children and young people, was assessed in an observational study at suburban cafés, restaurants and bars with outdoor seating, before and after plain packaging. The number of smokers who had a tobacco pack visible dropped by 15% in the months following plain packaging. Smokers were also more likely to hide or obscure the ugly plain cigarette packs, particularly in venues where children were present.
The increase in people’s perceptions about smoking harm is seen in a 78% increase in the number of calls to Australia’s national smoking cessation helpline four weeks after the introduction of plain packaging – a rise that was prolonged.
CHAOS IN SHOPS?
CLAIM Plain packs will cause queues in shops
FACT Research in Australia has revealed serving times are, at least, consistent with pre-legislation timescales. Plain packs could even speed up the time taken by retailers to select the cigarettes and reduce the number of mistakes they make, according to research that simulated 2600 tobacco purchases.
A study of real purchases was done at over 300 milk bars, convenience stores, petrol stations and newsagents in a range of communities in four cities. By the second week of standardised packaging, the time it took shop staff to serve the correct product was back to what it had been before the new packs were brought in.
This undermines tobacco industry claims that plain packs increase each transaction by 15-45 seconds, frustrate customers, diminish business profits and cause retail job losses.
CLAIM Plain packs will damage smaller retailers
FACT Researchers compared 4000 smokers’ tobacco-purchasing habits before and after plain packaging. There was no evidence of more smokers buying their tobacco from supermarkets or of a loss of business from small, independent shops.
CLAIM Only public health campaigners want plain packaging
FACT Cancer Research UK figures show that, in January 2015, nearly three-quarters (72%) of UK voters across the political spectrum said they support plain packs, with only 15% opposed.
MPs largely support the introduction of plain packs as well. In February 2013 Northern Ireland MP Ian Paisley jnr delivered a letter opposing the legislation to then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt with the signatures of 73 fellow MPs. It is currently claimed around 100 Conservative MPs and 12 Labour MPs could vote against the measure, indicating that the two-year opposition campaign has not managed to force a seismic shift in support across all 650 MPs.
RISE IN YOUNG SMOKERS?
CLAIM More people are smoking because of plain packs
FACT Tobacco giants Philip Morris and British American Tobacco have pushed inaccurate research to the media as “proof” plain packaging laws have failed. The research was led by a senior research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs – a right-wing think-tank receiving funding from the tobacco industry (a connection and source of funding left undisclosed).
The main claim of the study was that data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) showed the smoking rate in 12-17-year-olds had increased by 32% – from 2.5% in 2010 to 3.4% in 2013. This false claim continued to be used by the tobacco industry even after it was discounted by the AIHW’s head of tobacco because the sample size was “not statistically significant” – a point made in the original research but ignored by Big Tobacco.
While it’s too early to link any positive changes in the smoking rate to plain packs, evidence from Australia shows that tobacco consumption continues to fall. Between 2010 and 2013, Australia saw a 15% relative reduction in the number of regular smokers aged 14 or older, from 15.1% to 12.8% – the lowest smoking rate for this age group in the world.
A higher proportion of young people say they have never smoked and there has been a 3.4% decrease in tobacco sold in Australia since plain packs were introduced in December 2012, even more significant as the Australian population increased by 1.7% in 2013.