If you think fake news is tough on readers, try being an editor. All day long you’re being bombarded by people with axes to grind, presenting wildly different narratives, and you have to sift through all the noise for cold, hard facts.

That was the task facing the Cape Town-based Biznews website, when they commissioned an article from one Yael Ossowsksi on the pros and cons of plain-packing cigarettes. And as you can see, the freelancer concluded that research suggests it would not affect smoking rates.

So far, so good. As one would expect, a spokesman for the state-funded South African National Council Against Smoking, Yussuf Saloojee, wrote to dispute Ossowski’s findings. And this is where it gets weird.

Biznews published this reply without consulting Ossowski – fair play, we’re all busy people – but prefaced it with an introduction imputing his professionalism. To spring that on a journalist without consulting him is not fair play.

The thing is, if they had asked Ossowski about Saloojee’s claims, he could have given them chapter and verse (see below) and found a way to protect their reputation as well as his own. Instead they left him high and dry and the public misinformed.

When Ossowski saw the Salojee farrago, he naturally asked for a right of reply in which he would provide the c and v to support his claims. Naturally, Biznews havered: no media outfit likes admitting its mistakes; and they didn’t want a game of statistical ‘ping pong’ going on in their columns.

Showing admirable patience, in our opinion, Ossowski then came up with a formula to save everyone’s face. He would find another site to publish his refutation of Salojee; and he would forget about the professional slur if Biznews would allow him a brief letter referring readers to the new link presenting his case.

Step in, Popla. Hearing of the stand-off, we told Ossowski that we’d give him space to correct Salojee (see below). It’s a long read, and we understand that Biznews might not want to give the dispute so much space. But since we’ve relieved them of most of the burden, we hope they’ll now do the decent thing by Ossowski.    (PoplaStaff) 

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Plain packaging propaganda doesn’t add up

In his article for BizNews [writes Yael Ossowski] Mr Saloojee brought up the Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug survey. It cites a decrease in daily smokers from 15.1 percent to 12.8 percent between 2010-2013 as evidence of the effectiveness of mandating plain packaging.

But these numbers are deceiving and should not drive public policy.

Take, for example, the study published in the Tobacco Control journal in November last year which claimed the success of plain packaging based on the responses about what Australian 12-24 year olds said they would do once a policy was introduced. What was not reported was the change in actual behavior when the policy was introduced: smoking rates among 12-24 year olds – which were going down from 16 to 12 percent – went back up to 16 percent after plain packaging was introduced. That’s just fact.

Similarly, the annual New South Wales Population Health Survey found that smoking rates among 16-24 year olds – having been in decline – increased from 16.4 percent to 17.8 percent between 2012 to 2013 and then to 18.6 percent in 2014.

And that’s not all. Another study in the Tobacco Control journal showed that smoking rates among adults in the State of Victoria went up after the introduction of plain packaging.

The research cited by Saloojee from Quartz and the New Scientist is based on a study by Webb which shows an increase in smoking – but that research is based on 178 people. Such a small sample size wouldn’t pass muster in most universities. Let alone as evidence to be cited when crafting public policy which will affect millions of ordinary South Africans.

There are further issues with the Webb study.

The main limitation is self-reporting, given the complete disappearance of branding after the introduction of plain packaging, the first conclusion – that ‘brand loyalty’ is affected – is hardly surprising.

The second – again based on self-reporting – is merely about intention: the study reports that the 149 in the sample who reported continued smoking also reported more attempts to quit smoking. However, all 149 were smokers and the study (by design) did not account for actual behaviors.

In other words, none of these 149 actually quit. (Had they quit they would have been excluded from the sample when it was reduced from 178 to 149). We know from actual data that there was no change in trend in actual smoking behavior, which is what is important. Interestingly, there was no mention of the 29 smokers who reported they quit for more than one week or the 71 who reported an attempt but then reported relapse.

In that case, should this evidence be cited as the basis for a proposed new legislation in South Africa?

Professor Sinclair Davidson of RMIT University in Australia states that “the Australian government manipulated highly selective data.” He affirms that “there is no statistically robust evidence to support the view that smoking prevalence changed because of the plain packaging policy.”

“Despite what the Australian government claims, their own data simply does not show any change in smoking prevalence,” said Davidson.

And when it comes to vaping, or electronic cigarettes, the science once again proves that it is a better method to wean users off of tobacco than plain packaging, additional taxes, or any other government-mandated policy. And much safer than tobacco could ever be.

The market has created an alternative to the harms of tobacco— not the government. This is what should be considered by public health officials before they push an ill-advised public policy. That, as well as sound evidence should be the base of the laws which regard tobacco, tobacco alternatives, and all substances which the government would like to regulate. Not scare tactics.

by Yael Ossowski