If the Taxpayers' Union really want to be taken seriously, they really shouldn't put out press releases that lie to the media.
I haven't had the chance to have a good grump at anyone for a week or so (and, again, sorry to my Public Law students for the last one!), so it was with the greatest of pleasure that I came across this press release from everyone's favourite astroturfing right-wing pressure "group", the Taxpayers' Union.
In it, they decry the Health Select Committee for recommending passage of the Smoke-free Environments (Tobacco Plain Packaging) Amendment Bill. This law, if and when enacted, would effectively prohibit tobacco companies from putting branding on the products they sell. The theory behind it is that this branding is designed to make the product attractive to consumers (and to young consumers in particular), so removing it will reduce the number of people who begin smoking in the first place.
A very laudable aim. So why is the Taxpayers' Union so annoyed by it? Well, they imply that by recommending this Bill be passed, the Committee is opening New Zealand up to a challenge by tobacco companies under our international trade obligations. This has already happened with respect to Australia (who introduced plain packaging back in 2012), with tobacco companies seeking millions of dollars as compensation for their (allegedly) wrongfully appropriated intellectual property.
And what is more, the Taxpayers' Union says, the measures the Committee are recommending become law not only don't work, but they do the opposite to what is intended:
The increase in tobacco sales in Australia since the introduction of plain packing has been awkward for those backing plain packaging measures, and has received considerable media coverage in Australia.
While front page stories run in Australia about the failure of plain packaging, all New Zealand MPs can come up with is a four page report that doesn’t address the considerable evidence on the key question – does plain packaging reduce smoking?
ZMOG! you might be thinking (if you were a 40-something academic trying to prove he's still down with the kidz). This Committee wants to rush into place a law that may cost the Government millions of dollars, all to make a change that evidence shows will actually have the opposite effect to that intended!! Thank goodness that there's an alert, staunch voice out there to speak up for us taxpayers against this sort of craaaaziness!!!
And then you'd actually consider the facts.
First of all, does the Committee's report risk NZ being found liable to pay compensation under our international trade obligations? No. No it doesn't.
John Key has made it clear that the Bill won't actually be enacted until we see what happens with regards the challenge to Australia's law. If it turns out that we do have international trade obligations that require tobacco companies to be compensated for the new law (a pretty shitty outcome, IMHO, but there you are), then we can decide whether that cost is worth it. And if we decide that it isn't worth it, we just won't enact the Bill.
So the Committee's Report on the Bill doesn't do anything in particular as regards our position under international trade law. The Taxpayers' Union sort-of admit this when they note:
John Key was right when he said that New Zealand should wait for Australia's WTO case to run its course before New Zealand sticks its head out and breaches trade rules. It appears the Government has had a change of heart, and is choosing to do be seen to be doing something to curb smoking, while ignoring the inconvenient truth.
Well, are they right about this? Is it the case that the appearance of this Report indicates that the Government has "had a change of heart" on the issue? Not at all. The Bill was sent to the Health Committee back on the 11th of February. The Committee's Report then appeared on the 5th of August - six months later. Which is the standard time that select committees are given to consider and report back on legislation. The appearance of this report is thus nothing unusual; rather, it is exactly what should have happened.
Following the Health Committee's report, the Bill will sit on the House's order paper until whenever the next Government (whomsoever this may be) chooses to advance it. There is no time frame in which it must do so. It can sit there for years before getting a second reading. Meaning that the Committee's Report doesn't indicate anything at all about the Government's intentions in terms of when the Bill will become law. Nothing. At. All.
So that's the first outright falsehood in this media release. What, however, about the Taxpayers' Union claim that evidence from Australia shows that plain packaging actually increases tobacco sales?
If you click on the link they provide, it'll take you to an article from The Australian newspaper that trumpets figures showing that cigarette sales actually went up following the introduction of plain packages. But where, you might ask, did those figures come from? And the answer to that is they are self-reported numbers from the tobacco companies themselves.
Now, stop for a moment and think about how reliable those figures may be. Can you trust the industry that is directly affected by the regulation, and which is vehemently opposed to having it in place, to be honest about what impact it is having? And if you do so, can you come and look at this wonderful bridge I have for sale? It really is a wonderful opportunity for you.
So, sure enough, it turns out that the claimed 0.3% increase in sales hadn't even been adjusted for population growth - meaning that it said little aboout the actual rate of smoking under the new legislation. (Further, the tobacco companies refused to release the data so it could be independently verified.) And even that alleged increase in sales was contradicted by statistics from the Commonwealth Treasury - the people who actually get the tax from tobacco company sales - that "that tobacco clearances (including excise and customs duty) fell by 3.4% in 2013 relative to 2012 when tobacco plain packaging was introduced."
But, of course, how can an organisation like the Taxpayers' Union, with a mere two researchers on its staff, possibly be expected to know things like this? Well, here's something that might help them out when constructing future press releases. There is this amazing website that my students have turned me on to, called "The Google". And if you enter into this website the phrase "Australia plain packaging smoking rates", you get a raft of more recent articles detailing that:
A dramatic decline in smoking rates has coincided with the introduction of plain-packaging laws.
The daily smoking rate plunged from 15.1 per cent to 12.8 per cent between 2010 and 2013, according to the largest and longest-running national survey on drug statistics.
Most people are now 16 before they smoke their first full cigarette, up from 14 in 2010, and 95 per cent of 12 to 17-year-olds have never smoked.
But, of course, typing on a computer is so difficult that maybe we shouldn't expect the Taxpayers' Union to have to take such onerous steps before putting out press releases. In which case, it could simply read the report that it discusses in its release!!! Because, as the Select Committee notes on page 2 (you know, the one behind the covering page):
Subsequent to concluding our hearings of evidence on the bill, we visited Australia as part of a committee exchange programme. Late in our visit, key findings on tobacco smoking in Australia from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013 were released, including that daily smoking rates among people aged 14 and older have declined from 15.1 percent in 2010 to 12.8 percent in 2013, the lowest rate recorded to date. While this information is not directly relevant to any of the amendments we recommend, we consider it worth noting as it is at odds with earlier evidence received on smoking rates since the introduction of plain packaging in Australia. The Commonwealth Treasury has further advised that tobacco clearances (including excise and customs duty) fell by 3.4 percent in 2013 relative to 2012 when tobacco plain packaging was introduced. This information establishes a significant argument to support the legislation and negates many of the claims made by the tobacco industry.
Now, does this prove that plain packaging reduces smoking rates and increases the age at which people start smoking? No. No it doesn't. There's all sorts of correlation and causation arguments to be had, as well as risks in using short-term data to make general claims about long-term effects.
But let's just say there's a damned sight more evidence for the proposition that plain packaging cuts smoking than there is against it. And there's far, far more evidence for the former proposition than there is in support of a claim that plain packaging actually increases smoking rates.
Which may make you ask, why would "a non-partisan activist group, dedicated to being the voice for Kiwi taxpayers in the corridors of power" choose to put out such a highly misleading (oh, OK, outright dishonest) release to the nation's media? And, further, why would anyone in the nation's media trust anything that they have to say about this or anything else?
Oh - one last question while we're on the topic ... why do you think that a group governed by three National Party/Act supporters have had nothing at all to say about Rob Salmond's excellent reveal that National's $212 million spend-up on regional roads has no real economic benefit to the nation as a whole ... spending that Gerry Brownlee openly admits is intended to be an election year bribe? I guess that issue just isn't as important as what deaf MPs spend their travel budget on.