Yesterday the ABC ran this breathless story:
The first comprehensive evaluation of Australia’s ground-breaking plain packaging tobacco laws shows they are working, the Victorian Cancer Council says.
Fourteen separate studies on the impact of plain packaging in its first year were published today in a special supplement to the British Medical Journal.
Yes – it’s all been a glorious success – from the introduction to the special issue:
Plain packaging in Australia has been a casebook example of effective tobacco control—a policy measure driven by evidence, carefully designed and implemented, and now rigorously assessed. Further, it is set within the context of wider Australian tobacco control, reinforcing the most basic lesson learned over the last half century: action has to be strategic and comprehensive. There are no silver bullets. This issue demonstrates that plain packaging is beginning to deliver on its promise, and an important step forward, but it is still only part of the solution. Australia has learned and applied this lesson well and that is why it has one of the lowest smoking prevalence rates in the world.
Except for one small, tiny, little detail – as Chris Snowdon points out:
The other thing the articles have in common is that none of them—not one—looks at adult smoking prevalence, underage smoking prevalence or cigarette sales since plain packaging was introduced. Most of them are not new—they are reprints or remakes of previous efforts—but none of them look at the one thing that plain packaging was designed to do—prevent young people taking up smoking.
After more than two years, that’s pretty suspicious, but it’s hardly surprising since the rate of underage smoking rose between 2010 and 2013 and tobacco sales rose in the first year of plain packaging. Faced with this dilemma, Wakefield et al. ignore peer-reviewed evidence that shows that plain packaging doesn’t work in the real world in favour of rehashing their own tired old surveys and focus groups which boil down to asking people if they like looking at pictures of gangrenous feet (“they don’t! Plain packaging works!”). Even then, the best they can manage is to say that plain packaging has “prompted smokers to think about quitting”. Never mind the fact that they’re not actually quitting.
Yep – after two years and millions in government grants we now know that the plain packages are pretty ugly, and people don’t like to look at them. Now I suppose that proving the obvious is important but I suspect that if people had found the plain packages attractive the the tobacco companies would have voluntarily adopted the practice long before the nanny state forced them to do so.
So here is the challenge: show us how much smoking as actually declined as a result of the plain packaging policy given the downward long-term trend in smoking. This is what the peer-reviewed evidence says at the moment:
At best, we can determine the plain packaging policy introduced in December 2012 has not reduced household expenditure of tobacco once we control for price effects, or the long-term decline of tobacco expenditure, or even the latent attributes of the data.
To the contrary, we are able to find a suggestion that household expenditure of tobacco has, ceteris paribus, increased. In our forecasting exercise the actual data come close to breaking through the 80 per cent confidence interval. While we do not want to over-emphasise these results, we do conclude that any evidence to suggest that the plain packaging policy has reduced household expenditure on tobacco is simply lacking.