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Should plain packaging of cigarettes be tested, first?

Today’s Crikey bulletin has a most informative yarn about Labor’s links to Big Tobacco.

This comes in the wake of publicity about the Liberal Party ties of some of those involved in a tobacco industry-funded campaign against the Government’s plans to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes by 2012.

For those in need of reminding, plain packaging of cigarettes was one of a raft of recommendations from the National Preventative Health Taskforce that are aimed at reducing smoking rates from the present 16 per cent to 10 percent or less.

Meanwhile, health policy analyst Jennifer Doggett is not convinced that plain packaging will have the intended effect, and wants to see it trialled. She writes:

“Plain paper packaging for cigarettes is the sort of policy made for election campaigns. It is easy to explain to voters, it looks like the government (or potential government) is taking action on a serious health problem and it appears to cost voters nothing.

Too bad there is no evidence that it actually works.

Neither supporters nor opponents of the plain packaging proposal have made a case that stands up to any level of scrutiny.

The clumsy attempt by tobacco producers and retailers to argue both that generic packaging would not reduce cigarette consumption yet would seriously harm retailers’ profits is laughable.

No-one could take seriously the argument that stacking plain-label cigarettes on shelves will take $8-an-hour teenage employees so much longer that it will cause the wages bill for corner stores and service stations to skyrocket to the point that the viability of these businesses is threatened or we will all end up paying $5 a litre for milk.

If the ‘masterminds’ of this campaign are indeed ex-liberal party strategists, as reported in the media, Tony Abbott must be eternally grateful that they decided to move on from politics to give the tobacco industry the benefit of their muddleheaded advice.

However, the arguments put forward by supporters of this proposal are not much better.

No country has introduced plain packaging so we don’t actually know what effect it has over the longer term on cigarette consumption. The research cited by supporters to support the policy is usually based on studies where people are asked to compare a packet of cigarettes in plain and branded packaging and asked which they find more appealing (or some variation thereof).

These studies create an artificial situation (given that if generic packaging were introduced consumers would not be given a choice) and make any number of spurious assumptions about how smokers’ behaviour would change over the long term, given their views on cigarette packaging.

This sort of research is useful for academics wanting to publish papers in public health journals but tells us little about real life policy outcomes.

Intuitively, it seems odd that a smoker, not deterred by the prospect of a painful and premature death, would be dissuaded from their habit by unattractive packaging.

It also seems unlikely that a reduction in competition between tobacco companies, through preventing promotional opportunities, would reduce consumption rates (as commonly argued by advocates for plain packaging).

Anyone who lived through or visited the former Soviet Union, where the state had a monopoly on cigarette manufacturing and retailing and male smoking rates approached 70%, would be wary of linking competition within the tobacco market to closely to smoking rates.

It could be argued that, given the serious harms resulting from tobacco use, we should give any harm reduction strategy a go, regardless of whether or not it is likely to reduce consumption rates.

However, this is the wrong approach. It is precisely because of the high levels of harm caused by smoking that we cannot afford to adopt policies which are not based on evidence. We need to ensure that the resources we put into reducing tobacco-related harms deliver the maximum possible benefit and this can only occur if we ensure policy decisions are based on evidence.

Therefore, rather than diving headlong into an untested plain packaging strategy, the Government and Opposition should commit to a ‘suck it and see’ policy trial.

This would involve a number of selected locations, including capital cities and smaller regional centres, around the country with half randomly allocated to sell only plain packaged cigarettes for a defined period. At the end of this time – 12 months would be a decent length – the level of tobacco sales between the two groups would be measured and compared.

A study such as this would give the government the evidence it needs to pursue a generic packaging strategy or allocate resources to an alternative harm reduction strategy.

If the tobacco industry has the courage of its convictions, perhaps it could donate the $5 million it has allegedly pledged to bankroll the election campaign to fund a policy trial of generic packaging and call on both major parties to commit to road-testing the policy.

This would be both smart politics and smart policy and provide a secure evidence-based for future tobacco harm reduction strategies.”

Update: Interesting to see that Mia Freedman has also picked up on this issue at her Mamamia blog. (Which I’m sure is far more widely read than little ol’ Croakey…)