Plain packaging for cigarettes would require cigarettes to be sold in packets of a standard colour and shape with brand names written in a standardised font and pictorial health warnings covering a substantial proportion of the packet. The public consultation on plain packaging in the UK came to a close on the 10th August 2012. A few days later the Tobacco Manufacturer’s Association (TMA) publicly claimed that ‘half a million oppose plain packaging.' There are three significant issues with this figure:
In the misleadingly titled press release ‘half a million oppose plain packaging’, the TMA included a disclaimer that in fact the final figure was unknown as the Department of Health (to whom the consultation submissions were made) had not yet informed them of the number. “We await final confirmation of the number of responses from the DoH.” Nevertheless in his blog, the director of Forest, (an industry-funded pro-smokers’ rights organisation), Simon Clark, said that there were ‘at least 500,000 in opposition.’ Forest ran the Hands Off Our Packs (HOOPs) campaign.
2. Double Counting
The TMA release stated that 236,033 of the ‘half a million in opposition’ were signatures to the HOOPs petition, with the remainder based on “estimated responses into [sic] the consultation including signatures, postcards, letters, emails, online responses, consultation response forms etc…” The TMA did not disclose whether duplicate responses were accounted for in reaching their figure of 500,000. For example, it is highly probable that at least some of the 236, 033 signatories of the HOOPs petition would also have submitted other forms of response: either a formal response to the consultation or a signature on a parallel campaign such as the TMA-funded postcard campaign run by the Tobacco Retailers Alliance specifically for retailers.
3. Falsifying signatures
The DoH made a number of its documents public following a recent Freedom of Information request . Amongst the documents are several letters written to Simon Clark. On the 14th June 2012 the DoH’s Tobacco Programme Manager wrote to inform Clark of an instance whereby the manager saw a member of the HOOPS campaign staff falsifying at least a page of signatures to the petition in the street. A follow up letter was sent on the 20th June 2012 asking Clark to comment on the methods HOOPS employed to gather signatures and how Forest was “verifying that the petition only includes the names and addresses of actual people, who have signed the petition of their own accord?”
This second letter was written following a complaint from the Chair of the Royal College of Physicians’ Tobacco Advisory Group. The Chair described how he had been told by his students at the University of Nottingham that friends of theirs at the University were being paid by HOOPs to gather signatures for the petition. On the 16th July an email was sent to Clark by the DoH’s Tobacco Programme Manager in response to a question Clark had directed at then Health Minister Andrew Lansley. The Tobacco Programme Manager took the opportunity to ask Clark whether he had received the two letters and mentioned new complaints that had been sent to the DoH about the HOOPs campaign. The three further complaints were again concerned with the methods used to gather signatures, with members of the public voicing concerns that HOOPs campaigners were:
- targeting parents in play grounds telling them that plain packets would be completely plain with no health warnings;
- gathering signatures in loud nightclubs;
- targeting adolescents in the street telling them that the government was trying to ban cigarettes
Clark has published a number of blog posts in response to the release of these documents, defending the credibility of the HOOPs campaign and diverting attention away from the HOOPs scandal by directing criticism at the Plain Packs Protect campaign.