Standardised packaging (SP) of tobacco products is an innovative tobacco control measure opposed by transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) whose responses to the UK government's public consultation
on SP argued that evidence was inadequate to support implementing the measure. The government's initial decision, announced 11 months after the consultation closed,
was to wait for ‘more evidence’, but four months later a second ‘independent review’ was launched. In view of the centrality of evidence to debates over SP and TTCs' history
of denying harms and manufacturing uncertainty about scientific evidence, we analysed their submissions to examine how they used evidence to oppose SP.
Methods and Findings
We purposively selected and analysed two TTC submissions using a verification-oriented cross-documentary method to ascertain how published studies were used and interpretive analysis with a constructivist grounded theory approach to examine the conceptual significance of TTC critiques. The companies' overall argument was that the SP evidence base was seriously flawed and did not warrant the introduction of SP. However, this argument was underpinned by three complementary techniques that misrepresented the evidence base. First, published studies were repeatedly misquoted, distorting the main messages. Second, ‘mimicked scientific critique’ was used to undermine evidence; this form of critique insisted on methodological perfection, rejected methodological pluralism, adopted a litigation (not scientific) model, and was not rigorous. Third, TTCs engaged in ‘evidential landscaping’, promoting a parallel evidence base to deflect attention from SP and excluding company-held evidence relevant to SP. The study's sample was limited to sub-sections of two out of four submissions, but leaked industry documents suggest at least one other company used a similar approach.
The TTCs' claim that SP will not lead to public health benefits is largely without foundation. The tools of Better Regulation, particularly stakeholder consultation, provide an opportunity for highly resourced corporations to slow, weaken, or prevent public health policies.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every year, about 6 million people die from tobacco-related diseases and, if current trends continue, annual tobacco-related deaths will increase to more than 8 million by 2030. To reduce this loss of life, national and international bodies have drawn up various conventions and directives designed to implement tobacco control measures such as the adoption of taxation policies aimed at reducing tobacco consumption and bans on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship. One innovative but largely unused tobacco control measure is standardised packaging of tobacco products. Standardised packaging aims to prevent the use of packaging as a marketing tool by removing all brand imagery and text (other than name) and by introducing packs of a standard shape and colour that include prominent pictorial health warnings. Standardised packaging was first suggested as a tobacco control measure in 1986 but has been consistently opposed by the tobacco industry.
Why Was This Study Done?
The UK is currently considering standardised packaging of tobacco products. In the UK, Better Regulation guidance obliges officials to seek the views of stakeholders, including corporations, on the government's cost and benefit estimates of regulatory measures such as standardised packaging and on the evidence underlying these estimates. In response to a public consultation about standardised packaging in July 2013, which considered submissions from several transnational tobacco companies (TTCs), the UK government announced that it would wait for the results of the standardised packaging legislation that Australia adopted in December 2012 before making its final decision about this tobacco control measure. Parliamentary debates and media statements have suggested that doubt over the adequacy of the evidence was the main reason for this ‘wait and see’ decision. Notably, TTCs have a history of manufacturing uncertainty about the scientific evidence related to the harms of tobacco. Given the centrality of evidence to the debate about standardised packaging, in this study, the researchers analyse submissions made by two TTCs, British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI), to the first UK consultation on standardised packaging (a second review is currently underway and will report shortly) to examine how TTCs used evidence to oppose standardised packaging.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analysed sub-sections of two of the four TTC submissions (those submitted by BAT and JTI) made to the public consultation using verification-oriented cross-documentary analysis, which compared references made to published sources with the original sources to ascertain how these sources had been used, and interpretative analysis to examine the conceptual significance of TTC critiques of the evidence on standardised packaging. The researchers report that the companies' overall argument was that the evidence base in support of standardised packaging was seriously flawed and did not warrant the introduction of such packaging. The researchers identified three ways in which the TTC reports misrepresented the evidence base. First, the TTCs misquoted published studies, thereby distorting the main messages of these studies. For example, the TTCs sometimes omitted important qualifying information when quoting from published studies. Second, the TTCs undermined evidence by employing experts to review published studies for methodological rigor and value in ways that did not conform to normal scientific critique approaches (‘mimicked scientific critique’). So, for example, the experts considered each piece of evidence in isolation for its ability to support standardised packaging rather than considering the cumulative weight of the evidence. Finally, the TTCs engaged in ‘evidential landscaping’. That is, they promoted research that deflected attention from standardised packaging (for example, research into social explanations of smoking behaviour) and omitted internal industry research on the role of packaging in marketing.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that the TTC critique of the evidence in favour of standardised packaging that was presented to the UK public consultation on this tobacco control measure is highly misleading. However, because the researchers' analysis only considered subsections of the submissions from two TTCs, these findings may not be applicable to the other submissions or to other TTCs. Moreover, their analysis only considered the efforts made by TTCs to influence public health policy and not the effectiveness of these efforts. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that the claim of TTCs that standardised packaging will not lead to public health benefits is largely without foundation. More generally, these findings highlight the possibility that the tools of Better Regulation, particularly stakeholder consultation, provide an opportunity for wealthy corporations to slow, weaken, or prevent the implementation of public health policies.