Inside Story

Wacky backy

When the Australian waded into the tobacco packaging debate it was met with a barrage of well-informed criticism. The paper’s response was to dig in

Rodney Tiffen 12 July 2014 1870 words

A “proud” Brisbane smoker told the Australian that plain packaging was having no effect on her. absolut_100/iStockphoto

Worldwide, tobacco consumption is still the largest preventable cause of premature mortality, accounting for an estimated six million deaths each year. Yet it continues to be vigorously promoted by a large, wealthy and well-connected lobby that opposes all regulatory measures. Despite the evidence, sections of the media still lend their support.

The power of the tobacco lobby makes Australia’s success in reducing tobacco consumption all the more remarkable. In 1970, around 37 per cent of people aged fifteen and over smoked cigarettes daily; despite tobacco’s addictive properties, that figure has fallen to around 16 per cent. The fall in per-capita tobacco consumption has been even more dramatic, and is now around a third of the 1970 level.

Achieving this reduction has involved three strands: public education, including anti-smoking advertisements, warning labels and public health programs; increases in cigarette prices via steady rises in tobacco excise; and legislation restricting advertising and limiting where tobacco products can be consumed. The advertising bans have been extended from the broadcast media to print advertising, and then to event sponsorship.

The latest measure – a world first – came when the Labor government, led by health minister Nicola Roxon, mandated that cigarettes could only be sold in uniform plain packaging, a move aimed at discouraging young people from taking up smoking. Introduced in December 2012, it was accompanied by a further increase in tobacco excise, new restrictions on online advertising, and an extra $27.8 million for anti-smoking campaigns. (Tim Wilson of the Institute of Public Affairs, which is reported to receive funding from the industry, claimed that taxpayers could spend up to $3 billion defending lawsuits launched by the companies to protect their intellectual property rights over packaging design. The sum at the moment is considerably closer to zero.)

This is where the Australian comes in. Its owner, Rupert Murdoch, has always had a curious attachment to the tobacco industry. He was on the board of Philip Morris for a decade, and figures associated with that company have often served on News Corp’s board. Leaked Philip Morris documents have described Murdoch as sympathetic to the company’s position and labelled his newspapers, which rarely publish anti-smoking articles, “our natural allies.”

On 6 June this year, the front page of Murdoch’s local flagship, the Australian, was dominated by an “exclusive” report headlined, “Evidence ‘World’s Toughest Anti-Smoking Laws’ Not Working: Labor’s Plain Packaging Fails As Cigarette Sales Rise.” According to the paper’s Christian Kerr, “Labor’s nanny state push to kill off the country’s addiction to cigarettes with plain packaging has backfired, with new sales figures showing tobacco consumption growing during the first full year of the new laws.”

The paper’s editorial writers and columnists contributed their views in this and subsequent editions. “Suck it up nanny,” began that day’s editorial, “plain cigarette packs have not cut smoking.” “The nannies are panicking,” wrote columnist Judith Sloan, with a swipe at “Head Nanny, Nicola Roxon.” In case we’d missed the point, Henry Ergas observed that “not every nanny encourages her charges to take up alcohol and tobacco, but then again not every health minister is like Nicola Roxon.”

The one piece of evidence in Christian Kerr’s article was an Australian survey commissioned by the tobacco industry, which it planned to use in lobbying against the introduction of plain packaging laws in Britain. The provenance of the data is worrying enough, but worse is the fact that only selected snippets of the survey report were made available, making it difficult to judge the overall worth and meaning of its findings. Except for a single-paragraph comment from the Labor shadow minister, Kerr’s entire article pointed in the one direction, that the policy was having no effect. The owner of a convenience store, for example, was quoted, but no public health experts were called on for their views. A later story reported the declaration by a “proud” Brisbane smoker that the policy had had no effect on her.

The newspaper didn’t bother to check its industry figures against any official data, but others soon did. A leading economic analyst, Stephen Koukoulas, challenged the story using Australian Bureau of Statistics national accounts figures that indicated a decline in smoking during the calendar year 2013.

A much bigger reaction followed Paul Barry’s dissection of the Australian’s coverage on ABC TV’s Media Watch on 16 June. Skewered yet again by its arch enemy, the Australian reacted vigorously. It ran five stories on the topic the following Wednesday. Then, over the subsequent week or so, came two editorials, a couple of references in “Cut and Paste,” and several news stories and commentary columns. All this attention clearly reflected bruised editorial egos rather than audience interest, and offered a guide to how the Australian reacts when it’s under pressure.

Everyone else is acting in bad faith. The Australian often attributes unworthy motives to its critics – claiming, in this case, that the ABC was trying “to silence debate on cigarette plain packaging.” Its notorious “Cut and Paste” column is often devoted to finding critics’ past inconsistencies or insinuating impropriety or conflicts of interest.

Legal affairs editor Chris Merritt criticised Media Watch for not disclosing that Stephen Koukoulas had worked on Julia Gillard’s staff for ten months and for quoting Professor Mike Daube, director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, who had been a member of the government panel that recommended plain packaging laws. Daube is an eminent authority on public health – that’s why he was on the panel – and Koukoulas was a senior economist with Treasury for many years. The paper didn’t indicate that two of its own staff working on the story – Christian Kerr and Adam Creighton – had worked for the Liberal Party, and that one of its experts, Sinclair Davidson, has links to the Institute for Public Affairs, which is supported by the tobacco industry.

There is no need to give equal space to competing views. “We will decide who is quoted in this paper and the conditions under which they are quoted” might well be the Australian’s editorial credo. Witness Mike Daube’s experience. According to Mike Seccombe’s account in the Saturday Paper, Daube was amazed that a reporter from the paper came unannounced to his office and demanded he comment on data they refused to show him. In its response to Media Watch, the paper all but called him a Labor apparatchik. Then it refused to run the response he had written – a letter of approximately 400 words – unless he cut it to 150 words.

Data needn’t be presented in a coherent way. The Australian wheeled out its three favourite academics – Judith Sloan, Henry Ergas and Sinclair Davidson – in its defence. All three got the basic facts wrong. “I have no doubt that the consumption of cigarettes has risen since plain packaging was introduced; we just can’t be sure whether it is by existing smokers or new smokers,” Davidson asserted. Sloan repeated the claim. Ergas asserted that “Australian Bureau of Statistics data show tobacco consumption increased by 2.5 per cent in volume terms in the year immediately after the introduction of plain packaging.”

The statistical evidence is fairly clear, and in the other direction. ABS National Accounts data show expenditure on cigarettes declining. According to Media Watch, the industry admits that the number of smokers fell in 2013 by 1.4 per cent and the number of cigarettes smoked per person also fell by 1.4 per cent. Later, Treasury contributed its data to the debate, advising that “tobacco clearances” fell by 3.4 per cent in 2013 compared with 2012. “Clearances,” says Treasury, “are an indicator of tobacco volumes in the Australian market.”

The one exception to this consistent picture of declining consumption – and the one that the newspaper’s commentators have seized on without giving its context – is a spike in the last quarter of 2012. This was almost certainly due to retailers and some customers anticipating the large excise rise scheduled for December. Predictably this short-term increase was followed by a large decrease in the next quarter.

The other figure quoted in several reports indicates a trend towards increased sales at the bottom end of the market. But this is not inconsistent with a decline in aggregate sales. Cheaper cigarettes command a larger share of a shrinking market. Their growth has been more than cancelled out by the decline in the more premium brands, no doubt to the chagrin of the tobacco companies.

So, the Australian’s writers based their commentary on a false reading of the data. Ergas devoted much attention to how “basic economics” showed that the policy could have the perverse consequence of increasing the number of young smokers because of declining prices. Whatever his theory might say, the data says something quite different. Sloan and Ergas imagine that “diehard supporters” are “generating excuses more rapidly than you can say ‘the parrot is resting’” (Ergas) or that, “like kids who haven’t done their homework, the excuses are coming thick and fast” (Sloan). Rather than offering excuses for unwelcome facts, though, the critics were saying the Australian had its facts wrong.

The paper’s commentators also made grander claims. Ergas appreciates the intimate bond between smokers and their cigarette packets: “Consumers are harmed, as the quality of a product they value is forcibly degraded.” Davidson saw a human rights dimension in “the illegitimacy of state-sponsored persecution of that minority who consume tobacco.”

When official figures were mentioned, it was principally to dispute them (“ABS Not the Final Word on Smoking” was one headline). Davidson criticised Koukoulas for a “naive reliance” on ABS statistics, and noted that ABS data are “subject to revision.” There were claims that the official figures are missing a rise in illegal sales and special deals by retailers. The Australian’s attempt to have the final word was symptomatic: “Cigarette-makers Question New Data” quoted two tobacco company officials, and no one else, discussing the Treasury statistics.

The author of that piece, the paper’s economics correspondent Adam Creighton, had begun an unacknowledged and less than satisfying retreat a few days earlier. The ABS data, he wrote, “do not discredit the Australian’s claim the policy might have contributed to rising sales of cigarettes.” But there had been no “might” in headlines like “Plain Fact: More People Smoking” or “Labor’s Plain Packaging Fails As Cigarette Sales Rise.” Creighton still argued that “as of now there is no evidence to refute the industry’s claims of a rise in the number of cigarettes being smoked…”

What would readers relying solely on the Australian know after all this? They would not have a clear idea of what the paper’s critics had been saying, or why they were saying it. They would not know that the Australian Medical Association and the Cancer Council had criticised the paper’s coverage as misleading. They would probably think that tobacco consumption had increased rather than decreased. They would not have had a clear and unvarnished account of the official statistics, or where the weight of the evidence lies.

The Australian celebrates its fiftieth anniversary next week. It’s hard not to think that the paper would have covered the tobacco story more competently in 1964 than it did last month. •