A new study, published today (Tuesday 25 March) in leading medical journal PLOS Medicine, analysed tobacco company submissions to a public consultation on the issue to examine how they used evidence to oppose standardised packaging.

It comes during the week in which Sir Cyril Chantler is expected to report on the issue of standardised packaging for cigarettes.

The study suggests the collective argument put forward by companies that standardised packaging would ‘not work’ is based on misuse and misrepresentation of published evidence on standardised packaging and is ‘highly misleading.’

Examining evidence supplied by British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International, the authors found that the companies repeatedly misquoted studies that supported plain packaging, distorting their main messages. In addition, they commissioned academics who subjected many of these studies to a ‘mimicked’ version of scientific review, using unscientific methods and dismissing every single one as flawed, despite the fact that the studies were published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

The companies also sought to deflect attention away from packaging by promoting an alternative body of evidence while withholding their own research into the impact of packaging on cigarette consumption. Industry documents previously made public indicate that packaging is a key element of tobacco marketing, is used to increase product appeal to targeted groups, including young people, and can misleadingly suggest that certain products have lower health risks than others.

Paper author, Anna Gilmore, Professor of Public Health within our Department for Health, said: “Standardised packaging aims to prevent the use of packaging as a powerful marketing tool by removing all brand imagery and text. Yet tobacco companies have systematically sought to fabricate doubt over the evidence for standardised packs, just as they manufactured doubt about the health impacts and addictiveness of their products.

“The scale and consistency of the misrepresentation of the evidence base indicates that any evidence tobacco companies produce, including their responses to public consultations, should be viewed with the utmost scepticism.”

Lead author, Dr Selda Ulucanlar, also from the Department, added: “It is very likely that the industry’s reprehensible approach to evidence revealed in this paper cast doubts in the minds of policy-makers and played a role in delaying implementation of plain packaging in the UK.

“Between 13 July 2013, when the government put plain packaging on hold, and the end of March 2014, when the Chantler review will be completed, an additional 148,554 children (4,951 classrooms full) will have started smoking.”

In the UK, the Moodie Systematic Review concluded in 2012 that there was strong evidence to suggest standardised packaging would reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products and increase the effectiveness of health warnings.

In spite of this, in the UK, further to a four month public consultation and 11 months of deliberation on the topic, the Government decided it would adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach to observe the experience in Australia of standardised packaging. Parliamentary debates and media statements indicated that doubts over the evidence were the main reason for the Government’s hesitance.

To access 'Representation and Misrepresentation of Scientific Evidence in Contemporary Tobacco Regulation: A Review of Tobacco Industry Submissions to the UK Government Consultation on Standardised Packaging', accessible via PLOS Medicine see http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001629 .

If you found this interesting, you might also enjoy our research feature 'Challenging big tobacco on standardised packaging' highlighting a number of recent studies in this area.