Cigarette packs

An example selection of currently available tobacco packs

Three years ago, the Department of Health commissioned an in-depth review of the evidence for and against standardised cigarette packaging.

Known as the ‘Stirling Review’, it was initially built from 37 detailed studies, and was reinforced with an update covering a further 17 studies a year or so later.

The evidence was clear: putting cigarettes in plain, standardised packaging reduces the appeal of tobacco products.

What was Big Tobacco’s response? Analysts predicted a “bare-knuckle fight” – and so it proved.

But according to sporting wisdom, a ‘boxer’ will always beat a ‘brawler’. In other words, finely tuned skills and technical ability will outdo undisciplined marauding.

The tobacco industry takes the marauding approach, throwing more than a few shots below the belt.

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to work- at least as far as the public are concerned. Polling figures released today show that just one in 10 people trust the tobacco industry’s opinions on policies to cut smoking rates. By contrast previous polling showed that 85 per cent of people back government action to reduce the number of young people who start smoking.

Despite the chronic lack of trust, the tobacco industry persists with a deluge of ‘information’ – we’d call it misinformation – to try to influence the debate about tobacco control.

And it’s depressing to see how widely their misinformation spreads, and the influence it can have.

Using figures, but not facts

The influence of these half-truths and distortions can be difficult to spot. Here’s a classic example. Earlier this month, several Australian newspapers reported a claim that cigarette sales had increased since the introduction of standard packs.

The claim was widely echoed in the UK press.

However, as this excellent video from Australia’s ABC Mediawatch shows, the headlines are built on a foundation of poor quality data, spun in the (vested) interests of the tobacco industry and spread by front groups on social media.

Because even tobacco companies admit that, since standard packs were introduced, smoking rates in Australia have fallen by 1.4 per cent and the number of cigarettes smoked daily also declined by 1.4 per cent. Economist Stephen Koukoulas goes further, stating that in reality tobacco consumption in the first quarter of 2014 was “the lowest ever recorded”.

So why the discrepancy?

The industry relied on its own wholesale data, rather than detailed statistics about the number of cigarettes sold to consumers and then actually smoked.

There’s a similar story when it comes to smuggling statistics. When industry released figures purporting to show a rise in illegal tobacco consumption in Australia, the official figures did not agree. Sir Cyril Chantler, who chaired the UK’s independent review of standardised packaging was highly critical of these tobacco industry figures, noting: “…Australian Government departments, both Health and Customs, appear to be strongly of the view that [the report’s] methodology is flawed … I do not have confidence in [the report’s] assessment of the size of – or changes in – the illicit market in Australia.”

Need another example? In the UK when a tobacco company claimed, as part of a £2 million advertising campaign, that “…the black market in tobacco is booming” the advertising watchdog stepped in and ruled the claim to be misleading and unsubstantiated.

And just last week the Home Affairs Select Committee – a cross party group of MPs – delivered a report, which dismissed tobacco industry arguments that standard packs will increase the illegal tobacco trade. The report shone a light on the industry’s role in oversupplying high-risk markets and facilitating tobacco smuggling – as previous inquiries by the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office have done.

Asking tobacco companies to assess the impact of their own activities is, as the saying goes, ‘to set a wolf to guard sheep’.

No wonder just over one adult in 10 ten trusts the tobacco industry’s plans on how to cut the smoking rate.

An industry in decline?

The tobacco industry is built on the profits of death.

But it could now be facing a glimpse of its own mortality; meaning its ability to churn out dodgy figures as fast as it does cigarettes could be under threat.

In the last few months, net income for the world’s largest tobacco company, Phillip Morris International, fell by 12 per cent compared to the same time the year before. And sales from the second-largest company, British American Tobacco, fell by the same amount in the same period.

These aren’t unprecedented declines, but reflect the slow-burning impact of comprehensive tobacco control policies, which are helping to reduce smoking rates in places where these policies have been implemented – and also work to discourage young people from starting in the first place.

But an industry, which has historically denied under oath the addictiveness of nicotine, and to this day challenges the proven link between second hand smoke and lung cancer just keeps swinging wildly.

Despite signals of decline, the industry still rakes in masses of profits. According to the latest Tobacco Atlas – a comprehensive catalogue of information about the tobacco industry – in 2010 the combined profits of the six leading tobacco companies totalled $35 billion (around £20.6 billion).

This was equal to the combined profits of Coca-Cola, Microsoft and McDonald’s in that year, and larger than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of some countries. The international tobacco industry makes approximately £6,000 per death from smoking.

And these enormous cash reserves allow it to throw its weight around, using threats of massive financial claims to deter countries from tackling their tobacco burden – a ploy that is causing something known as ‘regulatory chill’.

‘Regulatory chill’

The tobacco industry openly admits that it is supporting countries to challenge Australia’s standardised packaging laws through the World Trade Organisation.

Dr Margaret Chan the Director-General of the World Health Organisation described the tobacco industry as “desperate” and stated that “high-profile legal actions…are deliberately designed to instil fear in countries wishing to introduce similarly tough tobacco control measures.”

But these claims are working in having a chilling effect on smaller countries; New Zealand has indicated that it will wait for the outcome of these legal challenges before introducing its own standardised packaging law.

And in this time, many more children in New Zealand will start smoking. It’s literally a lethal tactic.

A clear foe

But by studying your opponents you can, in time, learn to anticipate their movements: in the ring it saves energy, in a campaign it saves time and money.

For every claim, there is evidence to the contrary; behind every figure, a dubious calculation to be exposed; for every front group there is a tobacco company in the wings. Campaigning for public health policies that save lives is a vital part of our work.

Beating cancer requires more than just laboratory science – research and insight must translate into treatments and prevention strategies – otherwise who would see the benefit?

Tobacco is still the single greatest cause of preventable death in the UK. And beating it means squaring off with the tobacco industry once more. We’re into the later rounds in the bout for standardised packs, and it’s clear which side the public are supporting. In the fight for public health, the Government can’t throw in the towel now.

Chris Woodhall is senior tobacco control officer at Cancer Research UK

You can make the difference

Ask your MP to back standard packs, and tell the government to end tobacco marketing, by taking action here. It only takes two minutes but will have an enduring impact.