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Plain Packs – This week’s non-story

July 30th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized by

The government’s decision not to go ahead with “plain” packaging for cigarettes was welcomed by most sane reasonable people as an indication that we may finally be seeing a beginning of an end to the madness that is government by pressure group.

Only true public health disciples believe that the campaign is anything more than a vanity project intended to bash “big tobacco” and show just how powerful the activists have become. There is no credible evidence of any likely health impact whatsoever and one can be forgiven for concluding that some activists are so wrapped up with winning their “war” with big tobacco that they view health as a peripheral objective.  Others seem more interested in topping some sort of public health competition to determine which nation can be the most authoritarian.

Arnott chris oakleyThe response of the public health industry to the plain packs setback has been predictable and sad. Refusing to even acknowledge the public or its opinion, it has responded with a wave of unpleasant speculation and conspiracy theories based on the now very tired claim that the only opponents of the activists are in the pay of “big tobacco”.

This is not even remotely true but the strategy that it underpins has nonetheless been amazingly successful over the years because it has proved much easier to undermine opponents and demonize the tobacco industry than it has to rationally justify most of what tobacco control has campaigned for. It has in fact been so successful that we now live in a society in which a person’s research or opinion however valid in its own right can be effectively dismissed by any association, however tangential with the tobacco industry.  Although we do need to be alert to the influence of vested interests, the current state of affairs is lamentable and should be a source of shame to those who have created it.

The media has played a major role in the growth of what can be termed censorship by association as a result of monumental ignorance and the love of a “good smear story”. The Guardian is particularly enthusiastic when it comes to bashing industries that try to turn a profit and being staffed, for the most part, by people who would prefer not to do anything quite so vulgar themselves, provides many natural allies for public health activists.

The latest mouthpiece for Deborah Arnott’s ASH is Jamie Doward who treated us to a major scoop in this weekend’s Observer by exposing a “sophisticated lobbying campaign” by Philip Morris Industries (PMI) apparently intended to prevent plain packs being adopted in the UK.  It appears that someone leaked some 2011 PMI files intended for internal use only and from those files the intrepid Doward has managed to concoct a deeply dishonest and frankly ridiculous conspiracy theory in which organisations such as the IEA, TPA and UNITE are mere pawns in the hands of Machiavellian tobacco company executives.

In Doward’s fantasy, dissident smokers are unthinking recruits of “big tobacco” and absolutely no grass roots opposition to anything the tobacco control lobbyists have to say exists at all anywhere. The hundreds of thousands of signatures opposed to plain packaging don’t exist or are the product of manipulation by “big tobacco”. Lynton Crosby of course appears complete with photograph despite not apparently being directly involved in the leak.

It is of course entirely unsurprising that PMI analysed the politics surrounding the plain packs proposal in some depth but I would like to see the justification for Doward’s claim that the tobacco lobby has “spent millions” trying to derail the proposal in the UK.  Having waded through his nonsense in search of anything that represented fact rather than fantasy I was struck by a section in which he reveals that those dastardly executives at PMI actually resorted to canvassing public opinion in their efforts to thwart plain packs. Apparently they used their endless resources to commission a small poll of a thousand people from marginal Tory constituencies and found that only 3% of people thought that action on smoking was a top priority for the government. I hope that the 30 are a sampling artefact for the sake of mankind. When it came to proposed smoking reduction measures 24% mentioned plain packs but 62% preferred education.  Apparently Doward thinks that it is extremely naughty of PMI to expose the lack of public support for plain packs. I am trying to work out why.

Doward leaves the last word to Arnott who rarely fails to oblige with a manipulative meaningless sound bite. The Observer article is of a laughable standard but the underlying behaviour and the societal sickness of which it is but a symptom is no laughing matter. I look forward to next week’s instalment.

By Chris Oakley. Chris’ previous posts on Liberal Vision include: Minimum pricing – policy based evidenceAlcohol is Old News – Minimum Pricing for Digestives is the “Next Logical Step” , Soviet Style Alcohol Suppression Campaign Called for By Public Health Activists , Alcohol Taxation: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth Lies, damn lies, statistics &… , The Department of Health is Watching You! , New bounty on smokers helps GPs balance their books, Smoking ban health miracles , Public health idealogues don’t come cheap


6 Responses to “Plain Packs – This week’s non-story”

  1. Michael Jenkinson Says:

    Good points made there Chris. I can’t help wondering what the Guardian/Observer think a company usually does in these circumstances. Sit back and take it?

    If Pepsi or Diageo were faced with legislation to enforce plain packaging of their drinks they would do exactly the same thing. Any company would do. Are they that naive? Or being deliberately mendacious to imply that the actions taken here are somehow unusual.

    I used to read the Guardian but stopped when it gave up on any semblance of journalism – and this growing sense from them that the great unwashed are lesser beings and should do as they are told (by the Guardian and its smug middle-class writers). No wonder its readership is falling off a cliff.

  2. Jonathan Bagley Says:

    The Government was quite right not to introduce this policy when it had only been tried in one country, Australia, for six months and there was no information available as to its effects. ASH UK’s current mantra is “evidence-based policy”, so they shouldn’t have a problem with this approach.
    Their incessant bleating is likely because they suspect they are running out of time before this becomes a non-issue. First reports suggest the Australian ban is having no effect on purchases, however many people say they “are now thinking about quitting” – the subject of a paper published in the venerable bmj. See here for more

  3. Chris Oakley Says:

    Thanks Michael. I think that many journalists and most NGO staff have never actually worked in a commercial environment so have no idea what that entails. PMI were quite correct in canvassing opinions from various sources and analyzing whatever information they could obtain or surmise. One would expect any retailer to act in that manner faced with any potential legislative change. I too gave up on the Guardian although I do dip into the online version from time to time, if only to see what the righteous are up to.

    Don’t you mean policy based evidence Jonathan? I think that the BMJ is struggling a bit too and am not convinced that BMJ Open is anything approaching a quality journal. If the BMJ editors are not careful their output might sink to the depths recently plumbed by the Lancet. The paper in question is very poor and its publication at this time is pure politics.

  4. Chas Says:

    Why shouldn’t tobacco companies put their views when anti-smoking groups are allowed to put their views?

  5. Edrica Says:

    Good post, Chris – as always, I might add.

    Glad to hear the UK is taking a bit of a saner path. I fear those of us on the other side of the pond are going to see enhanced activity from the anti-smoking gang with the advance of Obamacare. Plain packaging has no merits and no good data behind it – but can lead to a very slippery slope as Michael suggests with Pepsi (and Coke).

  6. Ian Downey Says:

    When I read “… that some activists are so wrapped up with winning their ‘war’ with big tobacco that they view health as a peripheral objective”, I began to see why it is that people who yearn to protect children from being cynically recruited into smoking are so often portrayed as malicious. It’s perhaps because it seems that their critics are, in some cases, barely able to believe that they regard health as any more than a “peripheral objective”.