Thursday, 29 December 2011

British Heart Foundation cites survey of young people to support plain packaging

Press reports state that the British Heart Foundation's latest plea to the UK government for plain packaging of tobacco relies on a survey of young people. This is a reserved issue, but Scottish political representatives are being lobbied to put pressure on Westminster.

Other examples appear in the Independent and in Scottish regional papers. Resting a call for plain packaging on what a survey of under three thousand young people think is sadly not unprecedented (the invention of third-hand smoke precedes it: would you stop smoking if you believed that smoke clings to your clothes and kills your children?).

Who here thinks this paragraph convincing evidence that plain packaging would stop children being interested in tobacco?
A total of 2,771 young people took part in the online survey, carried out for BHF, which found 90% thought plain packs were less attractive than branded ones.
Did the survey ask whether tobacco in plain packaging would be found preferable to no tobacco at all? Considering that at least four fifths of those participating are likely to have been non-smokers, the answers are not surprising, especially since the survey designer, British Heart Foundation, has clear views on the issue. Even this document relies, not on facts but on what young people believe the facts are (p. 6):
 The research found that the proportion of young people believing that more than a fifth of children their age smoked fell from 62 per cent before the display ban to 46 per cent following it.
Granted it also cites more conventional sources of evidence in addition to surveys of young people. But its conclusions and arguments are far-fetched and unconvincing.
The EU Tobacco Product Directive, implemented in 2003, stopped companies using text and trademarks to suggest that a particular tobacco product is less harmful than others on packaging. However, the tobacco industry has continued to use gold and silver packaging on products to associate them as being ‘lighter’ or ‘lower-tar’ products.
Dick Puddlecote has more on the issue of whether different levels of tar present different levels of danger. All product lines from butter to baked beans alter colouring to reflect issues such as low fat levels or low salt or sugar, as a basic method of communicating clearly to customers what the product is. Being banned from using the words will increase the imperative to communicate with colour. Whether this same information leads people to believe that tobacco is safer if it has lower tar levels is moot. A public message that smoking is socially unacceptable is a poor vehicle for communicating the relative safety of different tar levels, since its core message is that smoking is always bad for you, and you are misled if you believe that any tar level is less dangerous than any other. In effect the levels of tar are no business of the smoker, who will use the information unwisely.

The British Heart Foundation does not consider the possibility that removing branding from the range of factors that prompt customers to choose their product leads the customer to decide on the basis of price, and could result in a price war, and certainly does not concern itself with the argument that illegal drugs are already sold in plain packaging. All scenarios assume that plain packaging will lead to customers seeing warnings more clearly, hence drawing the correct conclusions and desisting from smoking as a result.

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