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Show us the data on tobacco sales



29 July 2013

This year, for the first time, data on tobacco tax receipts and projections was missing from the budget papers, writes Simon Chapman. This data is absolutely critical to the evaluation of Australia's plain packaging law.

Australia's revolutionary plain packaging laws have governments around the world watching and waiting.

The largest impact expected is that on future teenagers who will grow up having never seen a packet of 69 known carcinogens dressed up in beautiful, market-researched packs designed to maximise their appeal to the critically important market segment of young starting smokers.

Apart from the pack, Australia banned most of the last vestiges of tobacco advertising in 1992, so someone aged 21 today has never seen domestic tobacco advertising.

Not coincidentally, daily smoking prevalence among 15 to 17-year-olds in Australia is now at an all time low of 4.2 percent, and plain packs are expected to knock that even lower over the next decades as those being born today grow into the smoking uptake years.

But there are likely to also be impacts on those who already smoke. A report just released found consistent differences between smokers using plain packs and those still smoking the former branded packs, during the crossover period in 2012.

Those smoking from plain packs thought they tasted worse, thought more about quitting, and more planned to quit in the next six months. With planning to quit being a good predictor of quitting, quitting effects seem likely.

When Treasurer Wayne Swan delivered this year's federal budget in May, my colleagues and I sifted through the online budget papers for the data on tobacco tax receipts and projections. But this year, for the first time, the information was missing.

In the table on revenue, the data on excise receipts from tobacco is buried in a line labelled "other excisable products" and customs duties on tobacco imports under "excise-like goods". A footnote explains that "tobacco estimates are not separately reported due to taxpayer confidentiality".

The amorphous excise category shows some $9.02 billion in revenue, a fall of $680m or 7 percent from the previous year, but because the other items in that category were not shown, the precise change in dutied tobacco cannot be seen.

The explanation here is that, with only two companies (BATA and Philip Morris) manufacturing tobacco products in Australia, releasing the total excised amount of tobacco sold would apparently enable both companies to calculate the tobacco product volume the other company was passing through to the retail market.

Similarly, with imports dominated by one company (Imperial) which imports into Australia from its New Zealand factory, customs data would reveal this commercially sensitive information to the other two companies. This is apparently more important than having publicly accessible data to use in evaluating Australia's pioneering tobacco control efforts.

The decision to bury the volume of tobacco entering into retail trade in Australia on this excuse is laughable for two reasons.

First, tobacco companies have long bought commercial shelf audit data from the main supplier of this information in Australia, so they already have very detailed information about how each company and brand is selling. Data on brand share is also published from time to time in tobacco retail and grocery trade magazine.

Second, New Zealand has long required all tobacco manufacturers to each year supply the government with detailed information on the sales volume of every brand of cigarette, roll your own tobacco, cigar and pipe tobacco. This information is released publicly and yet somehow, this white hot commercially sensitive information has not caused New Zealand to fall off the face of the earth. If New Zealand can force public disclosure of sales data, why can't Australia?

Tobacco use - both the proportion of people who smoke (prevalence) and the population adjusted amount smoked (per smoker consumption) - has been steadily declining in Australia since the early 1960s.

This decline has been driven by a complex and ever-changing mix of inextricably synergistic factors. These include public awareness and concern about the harms of smoking; price; reduced smoking opportunities which cause both reduced smoking and stimulate quitting; the growing "denormalisation" of smoking; advertising and sponsorship bans; pack warnings; and the promotion and government subsidy of smoking cessation aids.

All of these and more have worked together to bring smoking down from 72 percent of adult men and 26 percent of women in 1945 to, respectively, 17.4 percent and 14.5 percent smoking daily today.

A smoker who quits today may verbally attribute their final decision to a recent, proximal event like a price rise, pregnancy or a disturbing symptom. Few are likely to say advertising bans, pack warnings, plain packaging or a given burst of anti-smoking advertising was responsible. But distal factors that steadily drip-feed and condition people's growing awareness over years that smoking is not a very good idea lay the foundations for specific events to trigger many thousands to quit each year. Disentangling the precise effects of these many variables that all work in concert over many years is like unraveling gossamer with boxing gloves.

An English pro-smoking critic of plain packaging stated recently that nothing less than "a sharp decline in smoking prevalence, particularly underage smoking prevalence" was the test of whether plain packs worked. He didn't define the magnitude of "sharp" but consider this: the average annual fall in smoking prevalence over the past 30 years has been just 0.58 percent.

The history of tobacco control rarely sees any single initiative produce the spectacular changes demanded by such critics. One such example is that a February 2013 Department of Finance paper shows, without providing data, that the unprecedented 25 percent tax increase on tobacco introduced overnight on 29 April 2010 led to an 11 percent fall in apparent consumption (amount smoked), nearly double the 6 percent which had been forecast at the time of the announcement. This sort of information is of critical importance to assessment of policies to reduce tobacco use.

Tobacco customs and excise data are absolutely critical to the evaluation of Australia's plain pack law and its total program of making smoking history. Data has been available since the turn of the last century. Without it we will see a continuation of the data-free bluster from the tobacco companies who, fingers crossed firmly behind their backs, continue to assure us that plain packs are making no difference.


Simon Chapman is Professor in Public Health at Sydney Medical School.


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