11:03am Friday 03 July 2020

Illicit tobacco ‘scare stories’ used to fuel doubts over standardised packaging

The paper, ‘Tobacco industry manipulation of data on and press coverage of the illicit tobacco trade in the UK’, published today in the Journal Tobacco Control is the first to analyse tobacco industry manipulation of data about illicit cigarette and tobacco trade in the UK.

By analysing newspaper articles over five years, the paper reveals that shortly after the Government announced the possibility of standardised packaging, tobacco companies began placing stories in the media that exaggerated the extent of illicit tobacco in the UK – confusing non UK duty paid cigarettes with illicit.

Professor Anna Gilmore, from our Tobacco Control Research Group and UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies, explained: “Industry claims that the use of illicit cigarettes in the UK is sharply increasing is wholly inconsistent with historical trends and recent independent data.”

Professor Gilmore added: “Tobacco companies are exaggerating the threat of illicit tobacco by commissioning surveys of dubious methodology, planting misleading press stories and misquoting Government data. Industry data on levels of illicit must be treated with extreme caution.”

The paper is produced as the Government awaits the findings from Sir Cyril Chantler, who is reviewing the public health benefits of standardised packaging. Chantler is due to report his findings at the end of March.

Lead author, Andy Rowell, commented: “Over the course of the past 5 years we have seen a marked increase in the number of scare stories placed by tobacco companies about the levels of illicit tobacco in the UK. The illicit issue is being used by Big Tobacco as part of public relations strategy to raise doubts about the effectiveness of standardised packaging, with the aim of derailing legislation.”

The paper also highlights the irony of the fact that although the industry is using the illicit argument to derail plain packaging, there is overwhelming evidence of historical involvement of industry complicity in tobacco smuggling. There is also recent evidence of industry complicity too, including the oversupply of hand-rolling tobacco and evidence of Philip Morris’ own cigarettes being smuggled in large numbers across Europe.

The authors of the new report suggest that tobacco companies should now be required to make their underlying methodologies public, to verify whether data measures non-domestic or illicit trade, and that all industry data should be subject to an external peer review before being made public. The paper also draws attention to evidence of the tobacco industry’s historical and recent complicity in tobacco smuggling.

To access a copy of the paper see http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/early/2014/03/10/tobaccocontrol-2013-051397.abstract

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