Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Evolving from a "disaster" to "not very supportive"

I trust that people who have been reading Sinclair Davidson's series of articles on plain packaging for tobacco have noticed how he has changed his rhetoric over time?

First, March 27, noting that industry says it sold 0.3% more in the first twelve months:
What a policy disaster! The situation of the ground must be even worse.
 June 6, based on the same information:
For a policy that had the intent of reducing smoking rates, this is a disaster.
June 10, after thinking about it a bit more:
It is an open question as to whether existing smokers are smoking more, or if new smokers are taking up the habit.
A lot of very careful work needs to be done into the efficacy of the plain packaging policy – the early evidence isn’t very supportive of the policy.
And yet he complains when others (according to him) don't take him seriously enough at a forum discussion?

And how was this for a classic bit of arse covering by Judith Sloan after she wrote an Australian column which virtually repeated every argument Davidson had run up the flagpole:
Sinc, you are doing a great job on this.
But we should not forget that this is really an issue of principle rather than empirics.
Inspiring work, hey, by economists who shoot their mouths off first, and think harder later.


I also note that Sinclair Davidson's post of today tries on a "gotcha" that Media Watch quoted a 1.4% figure incorrectly for two different things.   He even quotes from the BT letter to show "what it actually says", but in doing so clips off the first reference to 1.4% in the letter.  Here's the full section, with 1.4%'s double appearance in bold:
 “From 2008 to 2012 smoking incidence, or the number of people smoking, was declining at an
average rate of -3.3 per cent a year. Since plain packaging was introduced, that decline rate
slowed to -1.4 per cent,” Mr McIntyre said.
“Over the five years in the lead-up to the introduction of plain packaging, total tobacco industry
volumes were declining at an average rate of -4.1 per cent.
“Subsequently, since plain packs were introduced on 1 December 2012, industry volumes have
actually grown for the first time in a long time to +0.3 per cent.
“Further, the number of cigarettes smoked on a daily basis declined at a rate of -1.9 per cent in the five years leading up to plain packaging, while it slowed to -1.4 per cent after green packs hit shelves.
 Oh dear, the letter is "not very supportive" of the attempted gotcha after all.

Now Davidson then goes on to criticise Media Watch for omitting the paragraph in the letter that argues, in spite of the percentages it just quotes:
“With growth in industry volumes, fewer people quitting and a jump in the amount of cheap illegal cigarettes on the streets, you could draw the conclusion that people are actually smoking more now than before plain packaging came into effect.”
Yes you could draw that conclusion - at least if you're an economist who brings no skepticism at all to tobacco industry spin and doesn't think about the letter as a whole.

Surely the actual problem here, for people other than Davidson and Sloan, is that the letter's conclusion makes little sense in light of its own quoted stats.   The number of smokers is reducing, the number of cigarettes per day smoked is reducing, but the industry is telling us that we can conclude people are smoking more now?   [They might have an argument there, somewhere, if they want to critique how the different sets of figures they quote are compiled, but they certainly don't make it.  The simple fact of the matter is that their claimed increase in sales volume, together with the alleged increase in black market sales, don't naturally gel with declines in the number of smokers and the number of cigarettes smoked per day.]

Here's the thing:  the industry wants to discredit plain packaging (absolute certainly on that point) and had an "obvious" way to do it - to offer cut price cigarettes and claim that any increase in sales volume over any short period shows the "failure" of the policy.  (They were likely assisted in this by the timing of the excise increase which may have led to some stockpiling before the price rise.)   But of course it is a self serving tactic, just like the IPA will campaign in the media by touring climate skeptics, and then quote any drop in polling for "public concern" about the issue to tell the government "see, this is not an important for the public, no need to deal with it." 

And above all of this is the clear fact that many proponents of plain packaging expected it to work long term by discouraging the young from starting, and assessing whether it is working that way or not would take some time to establish.  (Teenagers represent a small proportion of total smokers anyway - under 18 year old smokers now are well under 10% of the total*, and it's substantially more popular with girls at that age.  Somehow, I suspect that it is probably exactly that gender at that age that may be most put off by the de-glamourisation of cigarette packaging.)

Update: * not sure what the right figure is - the percentages in the link I was looking at was for percentage of under 18 teenagers who smoke - not what percentage of total smokers they represent.  That figure is proving hard to track down quickly.


not trampis said...

yeah, I wrote about this today.

I cannot believe Davidson would sink so low as he has.

He really will argue black is white and of course no-one is the wiser at Catallaxy

Paul Montgomery said...

Next up: Sinc argues that smoking INTENSITY is up. People are smoking REALLY HARD YOU GUYS.