Thursday 29 May 2014

You're The MP: Judge Plain Packaging Evidence

For a few moments, put yourselves in the shoes of a politician; an MP in fact. You are tasked with a number of policy proposals and you are relying on 'experts' to advise you.

In the past few years you have heard about this new plain packaging idea and have been told that there is a definitive evidence document called the 'systematic review'. You don't know that this was commissioned by civil servants in favour of plain packaging and therefore rigged to be written by junk scientists who are the biggest advocates for the policy.

You would have been shielded from anyone who pointed out that it was "deliberately framed" to produce the right result; created a "misleading impression" by using "questionable evidence"; didn't consider "negative impacts"; and was admitted by the Department of Health to be "biased".

I think it's fair to say that you wouldn't have been appropriately informed.

Well, one of the items of, ahem, incontestable evidence in this systematic review dealt with what the tobacco control industry like to call the salience of heath warnings. This means how much notice we take of the big ugly images that they stuck on your packet of fags. The anti-smoking tax-spongers say they've been miraculous even though there has been no observable effect on smoking prevalence ... which is why they now have to make them even bigger - because they haven't failed, oh no - and obliterate anything else you might look at instead.

Conveniently, in 2011 (a year before it was needed for the plain packs consultation) Marcus Munafò - an anti-smoking professional from Bristol - produced a study using eye-tracking tech which proved beyond doubt that plain packs is a no-brainer. Similarly, in 2012, Olivia Maynard - also an anti-smoking professional from Bristol and one of Linda Bauld's post-graduates - found the same.

Both of these studies were included in the systematic review placed in front of MPs as positive proof that they should go for plain packaging. The review leant on them heavily too, on pages 30, 54, 57, 58, 85, appendix (ii) and in the citations [pdf].

Sadly for the assembled masses of tobacco control sociologists, marketers and aircraft engineers, a proper eye-tracking expert - Dr Tim Holmes of Royal Holloway (University of London) - was pretty unimpressed with their questionable efforts on his patch, so decided to defend his discipline's integrity by doing some real research instead of policy-based advocacy.

His unpublished experiment - which disagreed with the tobacco control consensus - attracted the usual anti-smoking psychotic behaviour.
I was immediately contacted, and even harassed, for being a scientist and daring to question the efficacy of plain packaging in the war on cigarette consumption.
No surprise there, then.

He also had a few words to say about the laughable peer review process employed by the tobacco control industry.
I could have chosen to go directly to some high profile publication relating to marketing and packaging, health psychology or tobacco control, where the research would almost certainly not have been reviewed by those with any expertise in eye-movements and visual attention. And here’s the point, submitting research to peer review, when you know that the “peers” reviewing are not equipped to detect errors or omissions from the submission is, in my opinion, second only to the falsification of data, which has recently and deservedly been under the microscope thanks to some extreme cases of scientific fraud.
Did the authors of the systematic review on plain packs bother to run their brilliant evidence through the correct experts? Of course not, nothing could be further from their minds, they just fired it to their fellow anti-smokers and passed it off as gold standard. Being under the microscope is anathema to tobacco control, they resist it as much as they possibly can.

Holmes's second article on the subject discussed what he felt were flaws in the evidence produced in the systematic review, and after extensively and transparently describing his method in three and four, he delivered some conclusions.
In the meantime, it looks likely that plain packaging will probably be on the Queen's speech this week, and so I can only hope that somewhere along the way, someone picks up the points I make at the end of Part 4, that plain packaging alone is unlikely to achieve a significant boost in attention to health warnings, and any positive effects will certainly not be sustained over time.  More innovative and effective solutions to this problem are possible and I suggest some of these in my discussion, but all of that requires the science to be heard above the politics and rhetoric, and its only then the health and wellbeing of future and existing smokers will be truly addressed.
Now, remember that you're an MP. Will you be informed that evidence in the systematic review has been challenged? Of course you won't.

It's telling, though, that Dr Holmes's motivation was to accurately represent the effect of plain packaging on how smokers and non-smokers view graphic warnings, whereas the studies he criticises were conceived to promote a policy and were press released at politically advantageous times for the advocacy they believe in and are employed to further.

Put your MP hat on one more time and tell me which of the above evidence you would trust more. Then ask yourself why we suffer a system whereby real experts have to stumble across this kind of stuff while the government, of which you are a part, pays our tax receipts to fake ones who couldn't give a stuff whether the science is accurate or not.

Then, sack yourself because you should be serving the public better than that.


Peem Birrell said...

That peer review comment is right on the money. But there's a little more to it. The 'public health researchers' are in general incompetent - in stats, economics, other specialised fields and so the whole dunghill is sustained by them approving each other's work by peer review and making sure that informed criticism doesn't get published - again by peer review. It's even easier if they can point to industry funding of criticism - then they don't even have to think up spurious objections to defend their BS.

Sub dic verbum said...

The plain packaging issue is as good as on the statute books regardless of
any protest or evidence to the contrary. Westminster will just do the rubber stamping because they are fully aware the opposition is so disunited they
hardly warrant a fleeting glance. Do the MPs fear, a few hundred chirpy
telegraph operators,an handfull of worthy bloggers,the occasional invitation on TV, no chance .If a cause is worth fighting for ,fighters will be found for it
if there are no fighters for a cause then the cause is not worth fighting for.

Ivan_Denisovich said...

And thanks to our electoral system, most of them don't even have to worry about their jobs. They can treat us and the truth with utter contempt provided that they don't upset their party. Luciana Berger is part of a London elite that is more interested in fighting political battles than in any constituents but sadly the people in her Liverpool constituency would vote for a monkey if it wore a red rosette.

truckerlyn said...

We all know that when first presented with something new we will look at it, but once it becomes a daily sight, then we no longer see it! We simply become oblivious to it.

No need for scientists, corrupt or otherwise, to point that one out!