Plain truth about tobacco packs

The tobacco industry-funded visitor Patrick Basham, of the United States-based Democracy Institute, has claimed that calls for plain packaging of cigarettes are driven by "junk science" (Plain silly: why changing cigarette packets won't alter smoking rates, August 17).

However, the truth is that the tobacco industry has been running scared since the 1990s, when New Zealand research first indicated that plain packs would reduce the attraction of tobacco products. It has moved into desperate attack mode since Australia announced it would require plain packs.

Mr Basham states that: "Evidence alone, not theory or tradition, must drive policy." Let's look at the evidence base he claims is "embarrassingly thin". For more than two decades, researchers have documented the fact that young people find plain packages ugly and unappealing. There's also strong evidence that graphic health warnings, something the tobacco industry also fought hard against, encourage smokers to try to quit, and inhibit children and young people from experimenting with smoking. We know that the larger these warnings are, the more effective they are at prompting smokers to consider quitting, and deterring people who might be at risk of taking up smoking.

We also know that warnings have stronger effects when presented on plain backgrounds as opposed to branded packs. These findings have been documented in rigorously designed research in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain, by independent research teams with no other agenda than a desire to test interventions that could reduce the number of people who die before their time from illnesses caused by smoking.

Mr Basham complains about "junk science", but his misrepresentation of the evidence takes some beating in that regard. For example, he claims: "This lack of evidence [that tobacco advertising and marketing influences children's smoking] is confirmed by the fact that countries that have had advertising bans for a quarter of a century or more have not experienced statistically large declines in youth smoking."

However, his claim is strikingly at odds with New Zealand evidence, and findings from other countries. From the 1990s, virtually all advertising other than that on the pack and in tobacco retail displays has not been allowed in New Zealand.

Since then, smoking among 14 to 15-year-olds has declined from 29 per cent in 1999 to just 10 per cent now and the proportion of 14 to 15-year-olds who have never tried a cigarette has doubled from 32 per cent to 64 per cent.

These figures are consistent with the numerous systematic reviews that document associations between tobacco marketing and the uptake of smoking by children. The evidence is clear, for those who want to see it.

Mr Basham also makes the breathtaking claim, while providing no actual evidence, that: "Consumption and prevalence data from 145 countries finds little evidence that the entire range of tobacco control measures, including advertising restrictions and bans, has a statistically significant effect on smoking prevalence in any nation."

So, in New Zealand, did the decline in smoking among men from 33 per cent in 1983 to 21 per cent now, and the more than halving in per capita consumption of cigarettes from 1971 in 1990 to 961 in 2009, simply not happen?

Perhaps Mr Basham and his tobacco industry funders could also explain why is it that jurisdictions with the strongest tobacco control measures - for example, California (where 13.1 per cent of adults smoke), New South Wales (17.2 per cent), and British Columbia (14.9 per cent) - have had large reductions in smoking rates and now have smoking prevalence levels that are among the lowest in the world? Another inconvenient truth? Or evidence of which Mr Basham is ignorant, or wishes to ignore?

Contrary to his protestations, it is the industry funding his visit and whose case he argues that holds the record for "rhetorical dogma".

The proposal to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes is not a "regulatory assault" as the industry would like to portray it. It is a measured and appropriate response to help minimise the risk of this generation of children becoming nicotine addicts. We applaud Associate Minister Tariana Turia's leadership in tobacco control, and Health Minister Tony Ryall's support for the introduction of plain packaging.

We urge them to act now on the scientific evidence, follow Australia's lead, and introduce plain packaging in 2012. Current and future generations of New Zealand children deserve no less.

Richard Edwards, Janet Hoek, George Thomson, and Nick Wilson are university- based researchers and write on behalf of the ASPIRE 2025 Research Consortium, a team of New Zealand tobacco control researchers.

The Dominion Post