This story caught my eye on Friday:
The former head of the World Trade Organisation has indicated Australia is well placed to win its fight for plain packaging against the objections of tobacco-producing countries, saying nations had a right to put public safety over trade.
Pascal Lamy, who left the WTO after seven years in the role last year, said Australia was embroiled in a “classical fight” between public health on the one hand and intellectual property on the other.
“The basic doctrine of the WTO is that you’re entitled to take measures that have trade consequences to protect the health of your citizens,” Mr Lamy told The Australian Financial Review.
I can imagine scenarios where public health concerns might trump free trade – although I’m not convinced overall. But this becomes a massive loophole where governments and their public health lobbies can manufacture any story from any orifice and constrain trade and/or appropriate private property.
Let’s accept for argument sake that public health issues should trump free trade – when should this occur? Who has the burden of proof? Surely it cannot be enough to simply allege a public health benefit; the benefit needs to be demonstrated. There is little evidence to demonstrate that plain packaging is having a health benefit. For example, here is Chris Snowden:
… here’s what’s happening in New South Wales where a third of the entire Australian population lives…
The 2013 NSW Population Health Survey shows that 16.4% of all adults in NSW smoke. While this is higher than the 14.7% rate in 2011, the difference is not statistically significant and most likely reflects the change in survey methodology. In 2012, NSW Health implemented a new survey design that included mobile phones for the first time.
A smoking prevalence survey that can’t statistically distinguish between 14.7% and 16.4% isn’t much use, but the figures certainly doesn’t imply that plain packaging has been a roaring success, to put it mildly.
Then there is this rather amusing letter from Julie Soderlund to the Cancer Council Victoria.
Four years ago, in April 2011, Professor David Hill, Director of Cancer Council Victoria made bold predictions about the impact of plain packaging. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, he claimed that “plain packaging will slash smoking rates … make significant inroads into reducing rates of smoking initiation and consumption … [and] has enormous potential to cut smoking rates.”[i] In February 2013, barely two months after trademarks had been removed from the Australian tobacco market, you quoted Fiona Sharkie of Quit Victoria who claimed that “plain packaging is already having an effect.”[ii]
Yet, in your critique of a recent analysis of adolescent smoking prevalence conducted by researchers from the University of Saarland and the University of Zurich,[iii] you appear to have changed your view. You now claim that plain packaging could not “be expected to immediately lead to a detectable reduction in adolescent smoking prevalence” and that this was not the “expectation of governments or any credible researcher.”[iv] Similarly, in your critique of an analysis of adult smoking prevalence conducted by London Economics,[v] your position was, “it is likely to be many years before an impact on the decline in prevalence can be accurately assessed.”[vi]
We are confused. Will plain packaging “slash smoking rates” or will it have no measurable effect for years to come? Was there an effect already in February of 2013 but no effect a year later?
Do you indeed say now that one cannot expect plain packaging to have any impact on smoking rates one year after its full implementation? If that is the case, after how many years should governments expect to see the measurable effect you promise, and with what magnitude and probability? How many years is “many:” three, five, ten or more years?
We are also struck by your statement that no “credible researcher” would expect an impact within the first year (particularly as this is what Professor Hill enthusiastically proclaimed in 2011). This is at odds with the findings of the expert elicitation exercise conducted by Pechey et al. in 2012, in which renowned tobacco control experts provided best guess estimates of the impact of plain packaging on adolescent smoking.[vii] Ultimately, the experts guessed that the number of youth trying smoking would decrease by 3% within two years.
Our question to you: If the “best guess estimate” is a reduction of 3% within two years, would you not expect some effect within the first 13 months of implementation? Or, in the alternative, is it your view that neither these experts nor this study are credible?
Finally, is it not a double standard that you would be happy to portray studies that count whether people display their packs in cafes and bars as evidence that plain packaging is working,[viii] but dismiss out of hand a thorough statistical analysis of more than 41,000 data points on actual smoking behavior?
We look forward to your answers. As the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer wrote,
As tobacco control policies are formulated and implemented, it is important that they undergo rigorous evaluation … [W]e need to not only consider the size and nature of effects, we also need to consider the possibility that there is no meaningful effect. (…) We recognize that science cannot prove the null hypothesis, but it can and should make statements about interventions where there is a consistent failure to find evidence of any meaningful effect.[ix]
With our warmest regards,
Julie Soderlund, Vice President Communications, Philip Morris International
Bottom line is this: By all means claim that Australia is exempt from it free trade obligations under the WTO on public health grounds, but at the very least produce evidence that the public health grounds are valid. Otherwise it becomes open season on dismantling free trade.