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Challenging big tobacco on standardised packaging

Global tobacco companies are using selective or misleading evidence to influence the policy outcome on standardised packaging in the UK.

An example of standardised cigarette packaging, including a health warning
An example of the standardised cigarette packaging used in Australia.

In December 2012 Australia became the first country in the world to introduce standardised packaging - plain packs - for cigarettes.

Tobacco companies have mounted strong opposition to the policy.

Recently published research from experts in our Tobacco Control Research Group, part of the UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies (UKCTAS), have uncovered how global tobacco companies have used evidence as a tool in their efforts to influence the policy outcome on standardised packaging in the UK. This includes collating and promoting misleading data on levels of illicit cigarettes in Europe.

These tactics are typical of tobacco companies’ attempts to prevent regulation of their marketing activities.

What is standardised packaging?

Standardised packaging would require all cigarette packs to look the same:

  • Brand logos, colours and designs and promotional text would be prohibited
  • Brand names would be printed in a standard type face, colour and size
  • The shape, colour and method of opening the packet would be standardised
  • Health warnings, duty paid stamps and covert anti-counterfeiting markings would remain
  • Standardised packaging would also apply to other tobacco products such as rolling tobacco and cigars

Prolonged political debate

The Chantler Review, which is expected to publish its findings in March 2014, follows a lengthy delay in decision-making by the Government, who cited the need for more evidence as their primary reason for adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to the policy.

"Our research has exposed how the tobacco industry has misrepresented evidence on standardised packaging and generated misleading press stories about how it will lead to an increase in illicit trade,"Dr Jenny Hatchard from our Tobacco Control Research Group said.

"We hope the Coalition Government will now move ahead with tobacco packaging regulation as part of its wider strategy to reduce the serious harms to health caused by tobacco products."

On 10 February 2014 the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to amend the Children and Families Bill (453 for, 24 against), allowing ministers to standardise the packaging of tobacco products.

If the Chantler Review favours regulation, the policy could be in place across the UK by 2015.

Illicit trade claims ‘seriously flawed’

In January, Professor Anna Gilmore reported to the European Parliament "that there was growing evidence that the tobacco industry is still involved in the illicit cigarette trade and is exaggerating levels of smuggling as an argument to appeal against tobacco control policies, especially standardised packaging."

"Within a ten-year period, the tobacco industry has turned the issue of cigarette smuggling from a PR disaster into a PR triumph in which it claims to be both the victim of the illicit tobacco trade and part of the solution," Professor Anna Gilmore from our Tobacco Control Research Group said.

"Yet growing evidence suggests that, just as in the past, the major tobacco companies are still involved in the illicit trade and still over-supplying markets with their products in the knowledge they will leak into the illicit market."

In reviewing Philip Morris International’s (PMI) ‘Project Star’ report into illicit tobacco and examining independent data, researchers found:

  1. Project Star data tends to overestimate levels of illicit cigarettes in Europe;
  2. There is a lack of transparency surrounding the methodology used and the extent of PMI’s control over the report, plus an over-reliance on information supplied by PMI (some of which is highly inaccurate) with little external validation;
  3. Project Star data should not be relied on to measure illicit cigarette levels.

“Over the course of the past five years we have seen a marked increase in the number of scare stories placed by tobacco companies about the levels of illicit tobacco in the UK," Andy Rowell, Research Fellow at our Department for Health said.

"The 'illicit issue' is being used by Big Tobacco as part of a public relations strategy to raise doubts about the effectiveness of standardised packaging, with the aim of derailing legislation.”

Weak evidence on standardised packaging

In February, our researchers found that the deluge of evidence cited by global tobacco companies in response to the government consultation on standardised packaging for cigarettes was either ‘low quality’ or ‘off-topic’.

By analysing consultation responses a study, published in BMJ Open, found that much of the ‘evidence’ cited by tobacco companies should be viewed sceptically. Of the 77 pieces of evidence cited by four global tobacco companies:

  • Only 17 actually addressed the impact of standardised packaging on smoking;
  • None were published in peer-reviewed journals, an important marker of scientific quality;
  • 14 of the 17 (82 per cent) were either commissioned by or linked to the tobacco industry;
  • In some cases this link was not clearly stated by the tobacco companies in their consultation responses.

“The contrast between the quality and relevance of tobacco industry evidence versus the evidence in the systematic review is stark," Dr Jenny Hatchard said.

“This underlines the need for health policymakers to be alert to the provenance of evidence cited by corporate actors who oppose regulation which aims to benefit public health.”

In the latest study, published at the end of March in leading medical journal ​PLOS Medicine, our researchers analysed tobacco company submissions to a public consultation on the issue to examine how they used evidence to oppose standardised packaging.

They found that the tobacco companies repeatedly misquoted studies that supported plain packaging, distorting their main messages. In addition, they highlighted how such companies commissioned academics who subjected many of these studies to a ‘mimicked’ version of scientific review, using unscientific methods and inappropriately dismissing individual studies as flawed due to explicitly stated limitations, rather than considering the peer-reviewed evidence base as a whole.

The extent of tobacco industry lobbying

University of Bath researchers have also highlighted the range of tactics and arguments tobacco companies have used to oppose marketing regulations around the world.

Their paper for the Public Library of Science highlighted how policy-makers both in the UK and abroad need to ‘wise-up’ to the methods used by the tobacco industry in attempts to influence marketing regulations.

Researchers systematically reviewed research from around the world to identify the tactics and arguments tobacco companies use to influence and prevent policy aimed at regulating the marketing of tobacco.

They found that whilst tobacco industry arguments made to oppose or derail policy appear diverse, on closer inspection they point to a common theme: that the benefits of health reform are marginal whilst the costs to society are likely to be significant.

Common arguments put forward by the tobacco industry to oppose public policy interventions were identified, including that:

  1. a proposed policy will have negative unintended consequences – for example for the economy or public health
  2. there is insufficient evidence that a proposed policy will work
  3. there are legal barriers to regulation – including that it infringes the legal rights of a company
  4. a proposed regulation is unnecessary because the industry does not market to young people and / or adheres to a voluntary code

Prospects for standardised packaging

Cross-party support for standardised packaging in the House of Commons vote for amending the Children and Families Bill (453 in favour) and provisional measures in the UK’s devolved parliaments have paved the way for implementation of this innovative form of marketing regulation across the UK in the coming months.

This progress is despite the tactics of global tobacco companies, intent on policy prevention and delay. Notably, as with the House of Commons vote on banning smoking in cars, ​several MPs who voted no on standardised packaging had received hospitality from Japan Tobacco International.

Professor Anna Gilmore discusses the corporate subversion of public health by tobacco companies