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July 7th, 2014:

Tobacco industry-funded research on standardised packaging: there are none so blind as those who will not see!

Support for standardised packaging of tobacco products seems to be reaching a tipping point. Australia has already adopted this measure. In New Zealand, legislation is in progress. Ireland and England have now committed to implementing standardised packs while many other countries, including Canada, Norway and Turkey are actively considering them.

The tobacco industry, which has invested vast sums in the design of packs that appeal to new smokers, especially adolescents, is worried and, just as it did when bans on smoking in public places were being considered, is engaged in a wide-ranging and well-funded campaign to undermine the evidence.1 Laverty and colleagues warned about this, describing one such example using Australian data. They showed how the design of the study was such that it would have been virtually impossible to detect a significant effect.2 However, as we will now show, this was not an isolated incident.

Their warning would seem to be justified by a working paper published on the website of the Department of Economics of the University of Zürich, entitled ‘The (Possible) Effect of Plain Packaging on the Smoking Prevalence of Minors in Australia: A Trend Analysis’,3 funded by Philip Morris International. Its authors also conclude that there is no evidence that standardised packaging works and Philip Morris has press released it,4 generating headlines such as ‘Plain packs derided as not working’5 and ‘New data proves plain pack cigarettes doesn’t dissuade young smokers’.6 However, as we shall show, once again, it was almost inevitable that the data and methods used would fail to detect any expected effect.

The study looks at the ‘prevalence of smoking among Australians aged 14–17 years’, taking monthly prevalence …