Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University
JTI-MacDonald recently launched a multimedia campaign, Both Sides of the Argument, to sway public opinion against proposed plain packaging legislation in Canada. The campaign includes advertisements on popular radio stations, a website, posters in restaurant and bar bathrooms, advertisements in national newspapers and sponsored posts on Facebook. The advertisements and website state that they are “A JTI-Macdonald Corporation Initiative”, however JTI-Macdonald is not a household name in Canada. It is therefore unlikely the viewers/listeners will recognize that the campaign is funded by a tobacco company.
The arguments, presentation and even name of the campaign is remarkably similar to one implemented by British American Tobacco New Zealand, titled ‘Agree–Disagree’, which coincided with the NZ government’s standardized packaging consultations. Analysis of the New Zealand campaign found that messaging misrepresented the intent of the proposed legislation, claimed standardized packaging would harm all brands, and used vague premises as a basis for claiming negative outcomes. The commonalities between the campaigns suggest similar strategies might be used elsewhere, and also creates opportunities for public health advocates to counter industry opposition to plain packaging.
While the Canadian campaign purports to present ‘Both Sides of the Argument’, it quite clearly represents only one perspective. A section of the website, subtitled Has Plain Packaging worked in Australia?, first presents “The evidence for why plain packaging worked in Australia”, appearing to represent the pro-plain packaging camp. However, the text underneath states that there is no evidence plain packaging contributed to declines in smoking, linking to an Australian government site that documents smoking prevalence, but does not mention plain packaging. Underneath this “the evidence for why plain packaging did not work in Australia” is presented. The claim that plain packaging is ineffective is repeated, this time supported by links to JTI-funded research and press releases. ‘Both sides of the argument’ conveniently supports the same conclusion by linking only to JTI funded ‘research’ and spin.Campaign messages are continually buttressed by weak evidence from organizations with known links to the tobacco industry. For example the site refers to an Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) report that “demonstrates plain packaging policy is destined to fail.” Not only does the IEA have a long and well documented history of producing research to counter tobacco control initiatives while receiving funding from the industry, the “report” is in fact a brief blog, which in turn links to an even shorter news report that cites statistics without reference or explanation.
JTI-MacDonald did commission an independent firm, Forum Research, to poll 2000 Canadians on their views about plain packaging. A quick scan of the research report reveals numerous weaknesses. Many of the questions are clearly leading. Take, for example, the following: “Some people say that a change to ‘plain’ packaging from multiple different brand designs will make it easier to produce fake cigarette packaging and increase the amount of illegal cigarettes sold in Canada. Do you think this is unlikely or likely?” In response to a question asking if respondents could explain plain packaging to someone else only 17% answered positively. Considering these results, the survey essentially documents the opinions of uninformed individuals. The sampling method in general is unclear, with the only details provided being that 2301 regionally and demographically representative Canadians completed an online survey during a week in August. How the participants were selected to ensure the sample was ‘demographically representative’ is not stated.
Encouragingly, for tobacco control advocates, comments on the campaigns Facebook posts reveal that not everyone is falling for the spin. Of the 50 most recent comments (as of 24 October 2016) under a Both Sides of the Argument post from 4 October 2016, 19 point out the weaknesses in the campaign, identify it as astroturfing, and call out the tobacco industry for promoting junk science.