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Think tanks with ties to tobacco arguing against plain packaging

A tobacco company speaking out against a public-health measure doesn’t have the same credibility as a respected think tank or advocacy group. So those companies often work with or donate funds to organizations that publicly criticize tobacco taxes and other new regulatory measures.

Those financial relationships create the possibility for bias. Yet most of the organizations on the receiving end of tobacco donations do not clearly disclose that information when speaking about related issues.

The latest example is the current debate over plain packaging.

The federal government wants to pass new regulations that would strip brand colours and logos from tobacco products and instead require them to carry a standard plain colour and font in addition to the graphic health warnings that are currently used. The government hopes the move can stop some of the nearly 90,000 Canadians who pick up the deadly habit each year. Across the country, nearly 40,000 people die annually from tobacco-related illnesses

Not surprisingly, the three biggest tobacco companies in Canada, Imperial Tobacco Canada; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald, are all opposed to the measure.

But they aren’t the only ones against the proposal. Some think tanks and advocacy groups with tobacco funding are also speaking out against plain packaging. And yet, these groups typically don’t mention their financial ties when speaking about policy.

For example, the Montreal Economic Institute published a report in September saying plain packaging “attacks the value of brands.” It included a disclaimer saying the report was “in no way” financed by tobacco. In September 2015, institute president Michel Kelly-Gagnon authored a Huffington Post article saying plain packaging drove consumption higher in Australia, where it was adopted in 2012. The article didn’t mention an industry connection.

But in an e-mail, Kelly-Gagnon said the institute has “proudly received” tobacco funding since 1998 in amounts between 2 and 4 per cent of its budget. He said in an interview that the organization recently decided to stop accepting donations from the industry because health groups use that information to criticize its work.

Then there’s the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco, which issued a press release in September warning about the prevalence of illegal cigarettes and how the problem will worsen with plain packaging. A letter to the editor from the coalition and published in The Globe and Mail in September also stated that plain packaging will increase the contraband market. In its official comments to the federal government on plain packaging, the coalition said there is “no doubt” the new measure “will increase the availability of the illegal product.” The document doesn’t mention financial ties to tobacco.

Online, the coalition lists its members, which include the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Toronto Crime Stoppers and the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council.

But according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail, the coalition works closely with the country’s three major tobacco companies to shape its public statements and reports. The coalition declined an interview request and did not respond directly to questions about its ties to tobacco.

Another example dates back to May, when the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), a Halifax think tank, hosted a talk by Sinclair Davidson, an Australian professor and vocal plain-packaging critic. According to articles in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Institute of Public Affairs, where Davidson is a fellow, has received tobacco funding and some experts have criticized Davidson’s work as flawed.

In an e-mail, Davidson defended his work and said he was invited to speak in Canada by the Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCSA). But according to the AIMS Facebook page, Davidson’s Halifax visit was organized by the institute in partnership with Crestview Strategy, a public-affairs firm. According to the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, Crestview currently lobbies on behalf of Rothmans, Benson & Hedges. (Crestview and Rothmans did not respond to questions about the visit.)

The CCSA said it does receive funding from the tobacco industry but declined to state an amount or respond to questions about Davidson’s visit.

Imperial Tobacco Canada; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald declined requests to name the groups they fund, but said they work with groups that share their views.

Julia Smith, a postdoctoral research fellow at Simon Fraser University who studies tobacco control, said she is concerned organizations with financial ties to tobacco will help derail plain packaging and other health measures, in part because many believe their views are independent and unbiased. “We’ve seen the tobacco industry use these tactics in the past,” she said, noting that “in some cases, they have been successful.”

Beyond engaging vocal sources, the tobacco industry has also commissioned several reports that say plain packaging is ineffective. But independent research tells a different story.

An Australian government survey found the number of daily smokers fell from 2.7 million in 2010 to 2.5 million in 2013. The average age young people reported smoking their first full cigarette rose from 15.4 years in 2010 to 15.9 years in 2013. And a 2013 study published in the journal Tobacco Control found only a small number of retail stores sold illicit cigarettes. Before plain packaging, researchers found about 2 per cent of cigarette packages to be illicit, compared to 0.6 per cent in the months after implementation.

Think tanks and advocacy groups regularly seek to influence public policy. But policy-makers and the public deserve to know when those organizations may be representing the interests of others.

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