Tobacco Companies Didn’t Fight Fair on Standardised Packaging

The British Government’s decision to introduce standardised packaging on tobacco products has been reached after a hard-won battle with the tobacco companies. A paper recently published in PLOS Medicine suggests that these companies may not have played fair.

The global tobacco industry is worth around £450 billion, but tobacco use results in around 6 million deaths annually. As part of the UK government’s aim to reduce such deaths, it has just announced the introduction of standardised packaging. In considering this measure, the government acted according to a series of reforms called Better Regulation, which intends to make policy-making more evidence-based. One part of Better Regulation involves consultation with stakeholders – here including tobacco companies – to help to evaluate data and to identify potential costs and benefits of legislation.

Given the reduced tobacco sales that might be expected by introducing standardised packaging, it’s unsurprising that tobacco companies argue against such measures. Their vested interest provides a strong incentive to challenge scientific evidence by means fair or foul. This new research, by Selda Ulucanlar and colleagues at the University of Bath, shows that at least two of the four major tobacco companies had misrepresented the evidence for standardised packaging.

The researchers assessed the submissions made to the public consultation by tobacco companies British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International. They used a method called verification-oriented cross-documentary analysis, which compares citations to original sources to examine how the sources had been used. They also used interpretive analysis to look at how the companies had criticised the scientific evidence.

They unearthed three specific ways in which the companies had manipulated evidence to minimise the benefits of standardised packaging. Firstly, the companies misquoted published studies to distort the message, for example by selectively quoting passages to exclude information which qualified the claims. Secondly, they reviewed evidence in ways that appeared scientific but which were not, in fact, scientifically rigorous. Finally, the companies used ‘evidential landscaping’: they diverted attention from the most relevant research towards other areas, failing to include some relevant studies whilst focussing on other less useful ones.

The research only considered what the tobacco companies tried to do, and not how successfully they were able to influence scientific policy. But it was important to make these attempts overt when weighing up the evidence, and the government took note of Dr Ulucanlar’s enlightening findings, citing them in their own report. The decision of the UK government to introduce standardised packaging implies that the tobacco companies’ attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, perhaps thanks in part to this research.

Nonetheless the paper remains important in highlighting how the Better Research emphasis on stakeholder consultation may incentivise stakeholders to manipulate evidence, in order to delay enacting policies which disadvantage them.

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