Countering Industry Arguments Against Plain Packaging: It will Cost Small Businesses

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The tobacco industry and its allies have frequently stated that tobacco control policies have a negative impact on retailers. They argue that small independent retailers will particularly suffer because plain packaging will increase the amount of time it takes to serve customers and increase the amount of mistakes made. This in turn, they contend, will result in customers buying their cigarettes from bigger supermarkets with larger staff volumes. Most of the evidence fuelling this argument is opinion only and comes from third-parties who are linked to the tobacco industry.1
This opinion is juxtaposed by peer-reviewed Australian research which shows that, after a brief period of increase, transaction times returned to normal following the implementation of plain packaging in the country.2 In Western Australia research suggests that transaction times actually decreased after the legislation.3 Earlier evidence by the same author suggests that unbranded packs actually makes the process of picking packs in shops easier as it is simpler to read brand names on plain packaging as they all appear in the exact same place on each packet.4
Despite this, transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) have used this argument against the Point of Sale (POS) display ban, arguing that small retailers would be disproportionately affected with the aim of influencing public and political opinion against regulation. There is no evidence that the POS display ban had any negative impact on small retailers.

Mobilising Support from Retailers

In its private documents, Philip Morris International (PMI) revealed that retailers have been, and continue to be, fundamental to the tobacco company’s opposition strategy against the POS display ban, Plain Packaging in the UK and Australia, and the EU Tobacco Products Directive Revision.

Industry-funded campaigns targeted retailers to gain their support and used them as third party campaign messengers. For example, the industry-funded Tobacco Retailers Alliance (TRA) gave retailers advice on how to submit personal responses to the consultation and promote industry arguments. The TRA also ran a postcard campaign against plain packaging, whereby retailers simply had to sign a card addressed to the Department of Health in opposition to plain packaging. The TRA publicised on its website that 30,000 shop staff signed these postcards.5 In 2011, the EU consultation on the possible revision of the Tobacco Products Directive was subject to a similar kind of coordinated inundation with 82,117 responses, approximately 46,792 (57%) of which were pre-programmed responses like those promoted by the TRA.6
Forest’s Hands Off Our Packs campaign included advertisements showing shopkeepers explaining how difficult it would be to find the right brands from a selection of standardised packages in a covered gantry and complaining about the so-called “nanny state”.

Countering Industry Arguments Against Plain Packaging

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TCRG Research

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  1. Australian Association of Convenience Stores, Impact of plain packaging on small retailers- wave 2, Final report prepared for Philip Morris Limited, 30 September 2013, accessed May 2014
  2. M. Wakefield, M. Bayly, M. Scollo. Product retrieval time in small tobacco retail outlets before and after the Australian plain packaging policy: real-world study. Tobacco Control doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2013-050987 online first 29 May 2013, accessed May 2014
  3. O. B. J. Carter, M. Welch, B. W. Mills, T. Phan, P.Chang. Plain packaging for cigarettes improves retail transaction times. BMJ. 2013;346:f1063 doi:10.1136/bmj.f1063, accessed May 2014
  4. O. B. J. Carter, B. W. Mills, T. Phan, J.R. Bremner. Measuring the effect of cigarette plain packaging on transaction times and selection errors in a simulation experiment. Tobacco Control doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2011-050087 online first 26 September 2011, accessed July 2012
  5. Tobacco Retailers Alliance, 30,000 shop staff against plain packaging, 2012, accessed August 2012
  6. Health and Consumers Directorate General, Report on the public consultation on the possible revision of the Tobacco Products Directive (2001/37/EC), 2011, Brussels: European Commission