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Angela Harbutt: Plain packaging isn't working

Mon 24th June 2013, posted by editor

Tobacco sales unaffected say Aussie convenience stores

I saw a tweet this morning from the 'father' of plain packaging,  Professor Simon Chapman. It reads:

Oz corner stores talk about "all the money being lost because of #plainpacks". So it's working! perthnow.com.au/news/western-a…

I checked the link to the newspaper article and under the title 'West Australian convenience stores make submission to sell alcohol' the sub heading does indeed read: 'Corner stores want to sell liquor to make up for money lost because of plain cigarette packaging'.

I would expect that, being an academic, Professor Chapman would have read the report referred to in the article. I did.

Having read the submission by the Association of Australian Convenience Stores (AACS) to the committee reviewing the Western Australia  Liquor Control Act I found a somewhat different take on the story.

(Note to Simon Chapman: it really isn’t hard to find. The Western Australian Department of Racing Gaming and Liquor has published it here.)

Most of the submission is a simple request to redress the current balance in the system – large supermarkets can sell alcohol whereas small convenience stores can't. 

The AACS thinks this is unfair and seeks to address this “uneven playing field”. 

Buried deep in the part about the make up and trading conditions of the 20,000 or so convenience stores in Australia is the following statement:

Together with the difficult trading conditions faced by the retail sector, the introduction of the carbon tax, tobacco plain packaging, the rumoured introduction of a ‘fat tax’ and already high utility and labour costs, many small businesses in this sector face an uncertain future.

That's it, folks. One sentence in the entire submission referring to plain packaging of tobacco.

There is no mention of any loss of sales of tobacco as a result of plain packaging. None whatsoever. The reference surely refers to the increased administrative and staff costs of the plain packaging legislation, something the AACS has already been very public about

Not being a trained academic I might have been tempted to leave it there. But then I had a wild idea that I might email the AACS direct, asking them to confirm what they meant. It was surprisingly easy to get a reply. This is what they told me:

In summary, plain packaging has adversely affected retailers in terms of costs (staff training, layouts, lost productivity), time to serve customers as well as receive stock as examples, but sales over the past six months remain unaffected.

Some anti tobacco campaigners will use any quotes to their advantage without understanding their true meaning or context and I need to ensure that I am as clear as possible in my communications, but rest assured retailers have been far more inconvenienced than smokers with the change, although smokers have been frustrated with slower service and incorrect products being given to them.

They also sent me the transcript of an interview their executive director did on 6PR radio station this morning. The interview was about the AACS submission to sell alcohol but here's the part where they discussed plain packaging of tobacco:

Harvey Deegan (presenter): “How much of a dent in retail sales, Jeff, can you put down to the plain packaging of cigarettes, which appears to be working in deterring people from smoking.?”

Jeff Rogut (AACS): “Look, that's an interesting point, and quite honestly there hasn't been a decline at this point in time. When we talk about tobacco we take a longer term view and certainly we're all for increasing health awareness, be it for smoking or for alcohol consumption. To this point in time, actually, tobacco sales have remained constant and the interesting thing of what's happened with plain packaging is where brands were very important, it's now become very much price-driven. So in some areas we're actually seeing an increase in sales because people are focused more on buying cheaper cigarettes than being worried about a brand per se. So, as I say, quite honestly, at this point in time there's been absolutely no reduction in sales and we don't see any in the immediate future.”

So, once again, Professor Chapman gets it wrong. Plain packaging is not working, unless the intention was to drive local shops out of business.

I am tempted to say that it's an easy mistake to make. Except it isn’t. It took me five minutes to find the submission on the Western Australian Government website and a couple of minutes find a contact name and drop a line to the AACS to ask them to explain their comment. 

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that this is yet another attempt by Professor Chapman and co to persuade gullible people at home and abroad that the Australian plain packaging experiment is working.

Nice try. But you're going to have to do better than that. 

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In 2012 the Government held a 16-week public consultation on whether the UK should adopt standardised (or 'plain') packaging for tobacco products. The consultation received over 665,000 responses, with a substantial majority (427,888) opposed to standard packs. In 2014 the Government conducted a further six-week consultation on the regulations for plain packaging. Together the Prime Minister and the Department of Health received a further 150,000 responses (via the Hands Off Our Packs campaign) opposing plain packs. In September the Government informed the EU it had yet to make a decision on the issue. To inform your MP of your opposition to plain packs and request they forward your views to the relevant ministers, please visit our LAST CHANCE SALOON microsite NOW! To receive updates about our campaign please enter your details below.

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