Remember the Alliance of Australian Retailers (AAR) who brought us the first salvo of anti-plain packaging ads in 2010?
These were the doozies that featured storekeepers with advanced knowledge of effective tobacco control explaining that plain packs “won’t work, so why do it” and then later on, “It just doesn’t make sense”.
It is no secret that the AAR is funded by big tobacco, who strangely have one or two concerns of their own about a policy “that won’t work” – enough to be in blind panic mode, pouring millions into their campaign to stop it. Personally, I never bother worrying about changes to my life that won’t make any difference.
This week the AAR released a Deloitte report with lots of shocking numbers and findings in it about an Armageddon that will descend on Australia’s corner stores because of a policy that won’t work. But now we have “research” to prove it. So let’s take a look at how they conducted the research.
First, Deloitte tells us that “Roy Morgan Research was engaged by the AAR to conduct a consumer survey to verify the risk of channel shift following the introduction of plain packaging”. Channel shift is industry jargon for your customers switching to buying their tobacco from bigger outlets like supermarkets, which of course have been attracting small business customers for decades because of their cheaper prices on everything.
Note importantly that the survey was not designed to examine whether there was a risk in channel shift arising from plain tobacco packaging, but to “verify” it. It’s a foregone conclusion, apparently. Great science.
We read that those surveyed “were presented with an overview of the proposed regulation and asked whether they thought their shopping experience at a small retailer would be affected”. So they were presented with an overview that would assist in “verifying” the risk of channel shift. No chance of any push polling there, I suppose?
Catastrophically for our corner stores, independent petrol stations and newsagents, more than one of three smokers (34 per cent) and 18 per cent of non-smoking consumers told Roy Morgan after hearing the overview that they were “either somewhat likely or very likely to change where they shopped as a result of plain packaging”.
So why would they do this? Smokers thought they would be “more likely to be given the wrong tobacco product”. So presumably they think that small shopkeepers are a cut below the staff in supermarkets and specialist tobacconists, and won’t be able to read the name on the pack or the column on the pack shelving behind the counter. Why else would there be more mistakes in handing over the brand requested? They will be packaged the same wherever they are sold.
Another reason given was that small store staff “would have a harder time finding what I want” and so “queues would be longer”. Again, how could this be different in small stores compared with large stores, given that the packs will be the same? Particularly when we discover below that small shopkeepers think supermarkets will stock far more brands, which presumably makes the search more difficult in the larger outlets.
The research also reports on focus groups with small retailers who believed that channel shift may occur because of:
- The increase in time required to complete a tobacco related transaction would lead to customers becoming increasingly frustrated due to delays and longer queuing time.
- The knowledge that a larger retailer, eg. a major supermarket with a broader range of products, would always have what they require.
Come again? Small shopkeepers think that the introduction of plain packs will cause them to cut back on the range of products they offer, but that supermarkets won’t do this? How come?
And what about the greater transaction time issue? Next time you are in a shop selling tobacco, watch what happens when a smoker asks for their brand. The shopkeeper turns away from the counter to face the storage columns on the wall behind them, as they have always done. Each brand is kept in its own column, they are not all jumbled together.
The regulations may well permit the brand name in standard font and colour to be displayed on the top or base of the pack so that the shop assistant can simply read “Winfield Blue” or “Holiday”. The idea that the shop assistant won’t know which brand is which is utter nonsense. The columns will be allowed to be labelled.
We have long expected big tobacco and its acolytes in tobacco retailing to react against any policy that threatens to reduce tobacco use and to use all manner of scare tactics to argue their sordid case for wanting to keep selling as many cigarettes as possible. But the really interesting question is what is a company with Deloitte’s reputation doing putting its name to nonsense like this?
The information contained in this report can only suggest that those interviewed were not given a full account of what plain packaging would look like. It seems that many are falling for tobacco industry lies that the packs will be indistinguishable: that there will be no way of distinguishing one brand from another. But every pack will be clearly labelled with its brand name and variant (eg: Winfield Blue, Winfield Red).
The Deloitte report is prefaced with an interesting caveat “No-one else, apart from the AAR, is entitled to rely on this Report for any purpose. We do not accept or assume any responsibility to anyone other than the AAR in respect of our work or this Report.”
Fine. Now we all know.
By Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney.