Tobacco Control, Plain Packaging, and Media Misinformation

3 May 2012 by Suzi Gage, posted in Uncategorized


Yesterday an article in the Daily Mail was brought to my attention by Ben Goldacre, and Transform Drug Policy Foundation. There have been a few articles along a similar line to this one, questioning tobacco control research and policy. This one seemed particularly one-sided, so it’s made me decide to go through the arguments, and discuss.
The very first sentence of this article riled me, I have to say:

There are few industries to have come under such sustained attack as big tobacco.

It’s almost too ridiculous to know where to start. I may be arguing semantics here, but I would say it’s not the tobacco industry under attack so much as the disease and death caused by smoking cigarettes. Other industries that sell harmful products (alcohol, pharma) are regulated. This is such a strange way to frame this article, the ‘poor’ tobacco companies are getting picked on by the ‘mean old’ government. Tobacco is the only product, legal at present, which, if used as intended, kills half of its users. Poor tobacco industry indeed.

So on to the meat. One thing that immediately leaps out to me about this article is that nowhere does it state that tobacco KILLS PEOPLE. OK, we all know this, but it’s fundamental as to why there is this legislation in the first place. It’s not there as some ‘Nanny state’ agenda, it’s put in place primarily because there is evidence that most (8 out of 10 according to a cancer research document on the subject) people who take up smoking start before the age of 19. In a dataset of thousands of teenagers in Bristol, just under half the 16 year olds class themselves as smokers. Nicotine (when smoked in a tobacco cigarette) is one of the most addictive substances known to man, so if you expose yourself to it before you fully understand the risks, you can be addicted before you realise, and quitting smoking is HARD. Tobacco control has a two-armed approach: preventing children from starting smoking before they’re in a position to appreciate the risks, and helping those who want to quit but struggle. To me, this is not a Nanny state, but a state with a social conscience. One might want to add a third arm to tobacco control, namely preventing damage to the health of those people who come in to contact with smokers. Passive smoking is dangerous. If you went out and someone else inflicted harm upon you, you would be outraged. This is passive smoking.

Let’s consider some of the arguments against tobacco control.

…since the UK Government annually reaps £12billion in levies from the likes of industry giants British American Tobacco, Imperial and Gallaher-owner Japan Tobacco, is it shooting itself in the foot?

Aha! Of course, never mind the health of our citizens, we’re in a financial crisis, let’s not lose money here. A fallacy for a couple of reasons. Firstly, figures from 2010 suggest that smoking is a net cost to the economy – with every cigarette costing the country 6.5 pence. And secondly if money isn’t getting spent on tobacco, it will get spent elsewhere, it won’t simply disappear, so it will still be being taxed; alcohol, petrol, all sorts of things are highly taxed. The money will remain in the economy.


‘You hardly need research from anti-tobacco campaigners to tell you that people may prefer elegant and attractive packaging to grim, uniform, dour packs designed by politicians and health lobbyists,’ says Mark Littlewood, director general (of the Institute of Economic Affairs). ‘But this proves absolutely nothing at all. The idea that youngsters take up smoking because they find it impossible to resist the colour scheme on a cigarette pack is risible.’

Erm…the scientific evidence does seem to suggest otherwise. The shocking video by Cancer Research (see below) shows children spontaneously commenting on cigarette packets. Suddenly it all looks a little less risible. And this is before we get to the evidence. Experiments conducted on teenagers have found they falsely believe packs of certain colours to be more healthy (gold and silver for example), and more importantly that they would pick these packs to try. Studies investigating how people look at cigarette packets have found that daily smokers look at the new plain packages in a different way to people who smoke less regularly, or not at all. Less regular smokers and non smokers look mostly at the health warning, which with its bright and striking design is now by far the most salient thing on a plain package (to dispel the myth, plain packaging doesn’t just mean a brown box – see the image at the top). But daily smokers look more equally at the warning and the brand information, now presented in uniform text. This suggests that plain packaging won’t necessarily put off those people who already smoke, but might be one cue to stop curious kids from considering lighting up. Why, if it won’t work, is the tobacco industry both here and in Australia where plain packaging has already been approved by the Government, fighting so hard to stop it? Something doesn’t quite add up.

Plain packaging brings us to our next argument (again a quote from Mark Littlewood):

‘If the health campaigners are listened to in this policy area, they can expect the lasting gratitude of organised crime networks, whose task of counterfeiting will be made much easier and who have no qualms at all about peddling their products to kids.’

Another straw man. Counterfeiters are hardly having problems making near perfect copies of current cigarette package designs, it is trivially easy to counterfeit current cigarette packages, so plain packaging makes NO difference. In fact counterfeiting is already such a problem that all authentic packs have hidden markings put on them by the manufacturers, so that enforcement officers such as Customs trading standards officers can determine whether packs are genuine or counterfeit. Such markings would work just as well on plain standardised packs.

The final argument in this article is that the Government is being ‘inconsistent’, by bringing in shutters to hide cigarettes from view, AND consultation on plain packaging. To me, this seems entirely consistent with trying to protect young people from marketing that is potentially targeted at them (according to this Cancer Research document). Both these screens and the plain packaging hide branding from impressionable children. But the big tobacco displays have the additional impact of making it seem like everyone smokes, and it doesn’t matter whether the displays are of the current colourful packs or of plain standardised packs, so both measures are needed.

Last but not least the argument is that this is the thin end of the wedge. Hardly, as advertising on TV was first banned in the 1960s nearly 50 years ago. What’s truly shocking is how long it took from when the link between smoking and lung cancer was scientifically accepted in the UK in 1954 for any government to take meaningful action. Regulation of tobacco is done to try and save lives, and improve the lives of people who may get chronic illness from smoking. What’s not to like?

Thanks to the members of TARG who fact checked this for me.

11 Responses to “Tobacco Control, Plain Packaging, and Media Misinformation”

  1. Neil Davies Reply | Permalink

    These articles always baffle me.

    Surely a newspaper or a source is only as valuable as the information they report.

    If a newspaper consistently misleads and misinforms its readers, then won’t they eventually find a more accurate source of information?

    It’s also interesting to note that almost half the comments under the article point out that it’s pretty spurious.

    Weird, little wonder the public has so little trust in journalists.

    In light of phone hacking YouGov recently reported that 58% of respondents said their trust of UK newspapers have fallen. 24% of people felt that UK news and media organizations always reported stories accurately. I can’t decide if that’s surprisingly high, or surprisingly low.*

  2. Suzi Gage Reply | Permalink

    I don’t really know what those statistics mean though. People may say they don’t trust newspapers (not surprising given current feeling towards media, Leverson enquiry etc), but does that mean they won’t then trot out the arguments they read when they’re down the pub? I’m not sure.

  3. Gabriel Scally Reply | Permalink

    Nice dissection of a typically unbalanced Daily Mail article.
    I love the comment towards the end: ‘Alison Cooper, chief executive of Imperial Tobacco, said she is concerned the Government is not acting in a balanced way.’ As if we should expect an even-handed approach from the Government towards arguably the biggest public health problem we face.
    I do however think that we do need to bring the industry into the spotlight. There is some evidence that when people start to realise that Big Tobacco is making huge profits from creating addiction and disease they will realise that they are being exploited and increase their desire to quit.

  4. Suzi Gage Reply | Permalink

    Thanks very much for your comment Gabriel. I think (and this is speculation on my part) it can be hard for young people to comprehend health risks that seem a long way off. It’s easier to understand the concept of giving money to people who know that what they’re selling you has a 50% chance of killing you.

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