How much evidence is needed for policy?

In the last few days before the Australian federal election, a curious $5million advertising campaign has been launched by the Alliance of Australian Retailers against the current government’s policy to introduce plain paper packaging for cigarettes.

Their television advertisements are based on 2 arguments:

  1. there is no evidence this will work, in terms of reducing smoking among either current smokers or new smokers
  2. it will add to the cost of running their businesses

Their statement of “what we stand for” states:

The government proposal to mandate plain packaging for cigarettes is the last straw.
Let’s be clear – we believe that reducing smoking is good for our community. But good policies require more than good intentions.
There is no reliable evidence anywhere in the world that plain packaging will stop people from taking up smoking, or help people to quit. But we do know that it will make it harder for us to run our businesses.

“No real evidence”

One of the ads argues strongly that policy must be based on evidence not just good intentions. Despite the appeal of this line, there is something not so convincing about the argument.

Well, there is evidence from experimental studies, such as a 2008 study published in the British Medical Journal.

If they are asking for evidence in terms of a longitudinal study of the actual effects of this when introduced as policy, it’s pretty hard to get this, as it has not been introduced anywhere.

And of course there is a self-perpetuating pattern to this – if this argument is run everywhere, it never will, making it impossible to produce the evidence.

“It will make it harder to run my business”

Another ad argues that the new policy would be damaging to business, without specifying how.

The spokesperson for the AAR, Sheryle Moon, interviewed on the ABC current affairs show Lateline, tried to explain how this could be the case:

SHERYLE MOON, ALLIANCE OF AUSTRALIAN RETAILERS: If I’m a small business owner, perhaps I’m a single owner operator, so I’m in my store, I’ve got plain packaging of cigarettes, I’ve got to put them away on a shelf – it’s difficult to do that. I can’t identify necessarily which product is which product.

PETER LLOYD: Why not?

SHERYLE MOON: Because it’s harder to see them, they’re not identified, they all look very similar. If I’m serving customers, it’s difficult for me to find the right product for the customer. All those increase my transaction times and make it more difficult for me to run my business efficiently.

PETER LLOYD: But the cigarette brand name would still be printed on the bottom of the package so you could still see, for example, Marlboro Light, on the packet, so why is that so difficult?

SHERYLE MOON: So I think the issue here, Peter, is more about that plain packaging is not a proven policy.

A more convincing argument comes from the webpage of the AAR, which reports the results of a survey (no details of sample size or type…):

What we do know about plain packaging is that it will make it harder for us to run our businesses.

A May 2010 Galaxy poll found:

80 per cent of retailers believe the plain packaging policy would hurt their business
81 per cent of businesses surveyed consider tobacco sales important to their business
78 per cent of retailers believe their business will suffer and they may have to lay off staff if their customers turn to the black market for tobacco
87 per cent of retailers believe small business in Australia is faced with too much red tape and regulation.

So… tobacco sales are important and they predict a plain packaging policy would hurt their business. I guess that would be by reducing sales – that is, by working?

The AAR is a new organization comprising The Service Station Association, Australian Newsagents’ Federation and National Independent Retailers Association, which is supported by British American Tobacco Australia Limited, Philip Morris Limited and Imperial Tobacco Australia Limited.

1 comment to How much evidence is needed for policy?

  • Wiebke

    Very good article!

    “Don’t introduce it because it does not work AND it will affect my business because people will buy less cigarettes.”

    The contradiction is so obvious, but still they think they can get through with it.. Actually with their campaign they give the proof that they themselves think plain packaging will work..