The letter by Giovanni Risso has to be up there with the best demonstrations of Charles Dudley Warner's notion that “People always overdo the matter when they attempt deception” (“Tobacco retailers back Borg”, 29 November-5 December). The letter shamelessly continues the propaganda on behalf of the tobacco industry to undermine the European Commission's efforts to prevent young people from picking up their first cigarette.
Who do they think they are fooling?
The global tobacco industry and its front groups and allies (such as the European tobacco retailers) are understandably up in arms at the possibility – now a reality in Australia – of putting all tobacco products in plain standardised packs. Of course they are: plain packaging is the greatest single threat they have ever faced. If they were not terrified by the prospect of plain packaging, why would they spend so much money (€5 million in 2011 in Brussels alone, according to Corporate Europe Observatory) to try to prevent it from happening in Europe?
The industry's resistance to measures that reduce the appeal of tobacco products and its response to the threat of a strong tobacco-products directive at the EU level are causing the industry to inhabit bizarre, almost amusing identities:
The industry as ‘friend of the finance ministry': We are expected to be grateful that the tobacco industry is concerned that “cigarette smuggling and counterfeiting cost the EU €10 billion in tax revenues every year”. The industry does not seem to be so concerned about the hundreds of billions in healthcare costs for tobacco-related diseases or about the 700,000 taxpayers lost prematurely to tobacco every year. Of course, the tobacco retailers also forget to mention measures that would have an impact on illicit trade such as security and traceability features – which are part of a newly adopted international ‘protocol to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products'.
But, to return to plain packaging: Plain packaging does not increase illicit trade and the industry knows it. Evidence in a new report published by Cancer Research UK on 23 November – evidence already acknowledged in recent tobacco-industry documents – demolishes this argument against plain packs. The evidence shows that counterfeiters already find all existing packs easy to forge and that plain, standardised packs are unlikely to make any difference to the counterfeit business.
The industry as ‘friend of the confused shop staff': We are told that “the standardisation of packages, covering them with shocking images, would make brands unrecognisable”. The short, time-saving answer is two words: alphabetical order. The long answer is that, in reality, most small shops in Europe are not dependent on tobacco sales and that money not spent on tobacco would be used to buy other consumer products. Why are the representatives of European retailers not more concerned about the health of their young customers, if, as Risso suggests, they are small and medium-sized businesses with strong community links?
But most comic of all is the industry's attempt to portray itself as ‘a friend of public health'. The industry argues that if governments want to introduce effective tobacco-controls measures they should listen to them – or else, be afraid of lawsuits or retaliation, or, who knows, getting fired. Yet countries that have placed public health before commercial interests and have adopted strong tobacco-control legislation (such as Australia, Norway, Ireland, Uruguay) are now facing litigation instigated by the tobacco industry. Is that ‘friendly' behaviour?
Who do they think they are kidding?
Anca Toma Florence Berteletti Kemp