Tuesday 24 April 2012

Debunking Plain Packs Junk: The 'Myth' Of Longer Serving Times

Belinda today linked to ASH Scotland's version of the 'myths' surrounding plain packaging.

This would seem to be the big strategy from tobacco control. In the absence of any kind of half-decent evidence, they are instead attempting to play down the obvious deficiencies of the policy by answering concerns with a few sentences based on shoddy studies (I say that as if there is anything else in the tobacco control armoury).

There are a variety of these about, dependent on which anti-smoking site you happen to come across. Some 'myths' are staples, but others are whatever the author of the page has chosen from a menu presented to them by the smokefree coalition, one suspects.

ASH Scotland have picked one of the more unusual ones as part of their selection, so let's start my promised series by showing it up for the junk that it is.
"Plain packs will cause confusion and extra costs for small businesses"

Tobacco industry estimates that plain packaging would slow down transaction times by 45 seconds longer per sale were based on a survey of the opinions of just 6 tobacco retailers. Proper research, measuring over 5,000 transactions in a carefully controlled setting found that, if anything, plain packs reduced transaction times and selection errors and certainly didn’t increase them.
Their 'proper' research is, you will not be surprised to learn, anything but.

As usual with tobacco control, you're not actually allowed to see it unless you pay a fee. They find it far easier to hoodwink you that way. Why should the public be allowed to check for themselves, eh?

Fortunately, our little group of jewel robbers includes those who are able to fling the odd pdf my way. As such, I am amongst a very small minority of people able to see if their claims stand up.

The study ASH Scotland are talking about (they aren't even considerate enough to cite it!) is entitled "Measuring the effect of cigarette plain packaging on transaction times and selection errors in a simulation experiment".
Conclusion: Rather than plain packaging requiring an additional 45 s per transaction, our results suggest that it will, if anything, modestly decrease transaction times and selection errors.
The study involved asking people to serve cigarettes to 'customers' reading out orders from a randomised list. First with branded packs, and then with plain ones. They found that it was slightly quicker with the latter.

Very good.

Or, it would be if they hadn't ensured the result in designing the study in the first place.

For example, they didn't include minor brands. The justification being that not many people actually want to buy them, so those were excluded based on market share. This led to a nicely manageable array of just 19 pack types to choose from.
A list of 50 transactions was compiled, with frequencies assigned to various cigarette brands on the list, based upon market share. In this way, the most popular brand in Australia with a 32% market share was assigned 16 transactions, the second most popular with a 24% share was assigned 12 transactions and so on, with transactions being rounded to the nearest whole number (brands with market shares <1% were rounded to zero). This resulted in a transaction list of the 19 most popular cigarette brands
Of course, in the real world - rather than the cloud cuckoo one where tobacco control resides - there are over a hundred brands in many retailer outlets, and people buy them.

Scanning for the minor brands without visible clues like, you know, branding and trademarks, is much more difficult - and likely to significantly slow down selection times - if the brand name is only printed in 14 point font as Australian legislation dictates.

Best just design a study that doesn't put such an obstacle in the way of getting the right result then, eh?

Actually, talking of the font size ...
The plain packs were constructed in a dull brown coloured cardboard with the brand name and quantity of cigarettes printed in a standard, black Arial Rounded font size 22 on the bottom half of the face.
The legislation stipulates 14 point Lucida Sans, which is a bit of a difference. How much of a difference? Well, what do you think? In the image below, the first example is what the study used, the second is what is prescribed by the Aussie government.


As for the servers, it would be problematic for this study if the customer were to mess up the results.
In order to reduce confounding from prior familiarity with brand logos and colours, smokers and those with previous experience in selling tobacco were excluded from participation. Those not fluent in English were also excluded.
Because only in the wibbly-wobbly world of tobacco control does multi-culturalism cease to exist. Everyone, but everyone, speaks English fluently and without hindrance.

There are obviously no examples of transactions - ever - where the purchaser can easily see his brand due to its highly visible packaging, and point to where it is to someone who struggles to understand verbal communication. Pointing becomes more difficult when faced with 100+ brands imprinted with almost invisible 14 point type from the opposite side of the counter. But I think they knew that when they sat round the table and chose their team.

As if that wasn't shoddy enough, there is more.

We are constantly told, by proud anti-smoking idiots, that this measure is designed to increase the visibility of graphic warnings. In fact, ASH Scotland's myth-busting uses this to ridicule the notion of increased counterfeiting (number 2).

By extension, we are supposed to realise that all the gore will take our attention away from the name of the brand. That is, after all, the entire point.

Not for our 'proper' study designers, it's not.
In order to reduce confounding from health warnings, none were featured on either style of packaging.
Is your belief beggared yet?

There is one last error which makes the whole study a bit of a joke. There were no customers.

The list of brands was read by researchers who were absolutely certain what they required. There was no dithering because of the difficulties placed before them as they might as well be someone with a pre-written shopping list for a flu-ridden aunt.

So ASH Scotland's 'proper' research, in summation, is a world in which every customer comes equipped with a shopping list and is not bothered by choice; where the major brands are the only ones in existence; where the font size is far easier to see than that they intend to implement; where there are no language issues; and where health warnings haven't been invented yet.

Apart from that, it's kosher.


Norman Brand said...

We live and we die as unique beings. On what grounds does anyone presume the authority to direct my my individual life decisions? Slightly off-subject, of three nearby supermarkets here, only one displays a list of available products. That one is Asda, and the service is good and helpful. 

Lysistrata Eleftheria said...

Proper research?

These people wouldn’t recognise proper research even if you set it
to fucking music, had a fucking orchestra play it and a massed fucking choir
sing the words, then released it on fucking cd and forced these fuckers to fucking
listen to it one hundred times.

Junican said...

In the list of variables, one has forgotten the factor which is likely to be the most difficult and time-consuming - running out of stock. "Sorry, Sir; we have no XXX. What would you like?"

Bill Sticker said...

Don't the halfwits realise that plain packaging of tobacco products make 'counterfeiting' easier?   There goes the tax take on that one.

Foot, trigger.  OUCH!

SadButMadLad said...

Sounds like the "science" behind the AGW "scam". It's all belief and there is no real science involved at all.

Ravynd said...

Please, on the odd occassions I used to buy ready mades, I was forever being given Marlbro Lights rather than what I actually asked for which was Marlboro. And that's with proper branding.

nisakiman said...

 Do I gather that you don't, perhaps, have complete confidence in their methods, Lysistrata? :)

JonathanBagley said...

Brilliant piece of work, Dick.

Guest said...

How are they going to plain wrap my Habanos?

Dick_Puddlecote said...

In a khaki condom, probably. They don't care if you like it or not. :(

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Science has had little to do with tobacco control since the 1950s

Lysistrata Eleftheria said...

 Malaxes, the lot of them, Nisikiman.

OwenCarter said...

Nice work, Dick! You stick it to the Man!

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Ta, junk scientist. :)

Owen Carter said...

Hello Dick.
as a scientist (even a 'junk' one) I welcome constructive criticism of my research. I had to defend the paper against three other scientists' criticisms before the journal would publish it-- as is standard for peer-reviewed research. You obviously read the limitations of the study that we acknowledged in the paper, as you have included many of them here. Just to give you an update, plain packaging has come into force in Australia now and believe it or not the sky hasn't fallen. Indeed we've undertaken field research to pretty much confirm our first paper. Feel free to criticise its methods too. http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f1063 (access is free for this one).

Dick_Puddlecote said...

The fact it was actually published despite being derivative shite still astounds me almost as much as your lack of shame in producing it.

I'll take a look at your latest offering, but - considering you are busted as an impartial 'scientist' (and a junk one at that) - I expect it is more policy-led evidence seeking.

Still, what do you care? You got paid.

Owen Carter said...

Actually, neither I, nor any of the other investigators got paid for this research - the entire study was undertaken with a zero budget and on an entirely voluntary basis in our own time.

If you feel a need to apply your impartial critiquing skills to further research on this topic, feel free to criticise this research paid for by the Rural Shops Alliance that unsurprisingly found exactly what they wanted it to: http://www.ruralshops.org.uk/EN/store/Projects/TheEffectofStandardisedPackagingonRetailService%20z.pdf

And perhaps this study, by Deloitte for the Australian Alliance of Retailers:


Please note that both of these studies were paid for by the tobacco industry.