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Jun 6, 2014

Oz exclusive: Big Tobacco-funded research hates plain packaging

Christian Kerr has insisted that plain packaging is not curbing Australians' cigarette habit in this morning's Australian. Where do the numbers come from? It's there that things get interesting ...

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Plain packaging has failed, according to The Australian‘s front-page exclusive this morning, but what is the evidence for the so-called failure, and who found and paid for the data?

Reporter Christian Kerr pins his argument that Labor’s “nanny state” legislation has “backfired” on a minute figure — a rise in the sale of individual cigarettes by 0.3% or 59 million cigarettes in 2013 as compared with 2012. Australians smoke 21 billion cigarettes annually, including individual smokes and their “roll your own” equivalents, and the Oz cites the industry figures, editorialising that “it is no surprise 59 million additional cigarettes were sold in Australia last year”.

The number is based on research by InfoView, a company that collates data supplied by industry players for their own use. Its website advertises a “statistical services unit” that “acts as an independent data bank or ‘black box’ for a large number of organisations who agree to contribute their industry or product market and sales data for aggregated reporting purposes”. The purpose of this type of research is for companies to monitor their products and the market as a whole without having to show their hands to competitors.

And who, exactly, is InfoView? As it turns out, the research is funded by Big Tobacco. When Crikey called InfoView to ask about the research, we were told InfoView would not make any comment and any inquiries about the research should go to Scott McIntyre, spokesman for British American Tobacco, a multinational tobacco company. McIntyre says the data comes from numbers provided by the industry to Sir Cyril Chantler, who is leading the British review into the possibility of plain packaging in the UK.

McIntyre confirms that British American Tobacco pays InfoView to collate the information. “Just like any company with fast-moving goods, we keep an eye on the market. It’s mainly something we use to keep an eye on the industry.”

With more than 40% of the market share, BAT is one of just a few industry players contributing funding to the research. InfoView’s statistical services unit was established in the 1990s by PricewaterhouseCoopers, and its website boasts “[its statistical services unit] was the trusted databank for PwC client’s sales and production statistics for over 20 years”.

PwC has previously done research for British American Tobacco, publishing a report in 2010 on rates of illegal tobacco, which Crikey‘s health blog Croakey found had “more holes than a slab of Swiss cheese”.

When plain packaging cigarette legislation was introduced to Parliament, then-health minister Nicola Roxon said it was a preventative health measure. “We’re targeting people who have not yet started, and that’s the key to this plain packaging announcement — to make sure we make it less attractive for people to experiment with tobacco in the first place.”

The legislation has been in place since December 2012, and Stephen Koukoulas writes this morning that consumption of cigarettes by household is down, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data released in the National Accounts this week, although there isn’t current data on the percentage of the population who smoke.

Kerr quotes New South Wales and South Australian government figures on the rate of smoking in the population, but no data on the rate of new smokers taking up the habit.

When asked if BAT researches how many people are taking up smoking, McIntyre said it did not monitor numbers of new smokers or smokers under the age of 18.

A study published in the journal BMJ Open last year found that plain packaging “is associated with lower smoking appeal, more support for the policy and more urgency to quit among adult smokers”.

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