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« Scotland: huge question mark over going it alone | Main | Ministerial statement on plain packaging: tobacco control still spinning »

Official: Forest underestimated success of Hands Off Our Packs campaign

Busy day yesterday, for my colleague Angela Harbutt in particular.

Angela appeared on the BBC News Channel, Sky News, and Five News. She was also interviewed by BBC Radio London.

Back in Cambridge I did LBC and a couple of local radio stations.

Not for the first time BBC Radio Cambridgeshire described me as the "Huntingdon campaigner" which makes me sound like I'm fighting plans for a local by-pass or the demolition of a local landmark, usually a tree.

Forest was also quoted by BBC News, the Guardian, Marketing Week, Management Today, The Grocer and something called Public Service.

Amusingly the Guardian initially reported that:

The government's decision was welcomed by groups including the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, the pro-smoking group ASH and the Petrol Retailers Associations.

This however was corrected when I tweeted journalist Andrew Sparrow. A note was added to the online report that reads:

This article was amended on 12 July 2013. It originally said the decision was welcomed by the pro-smoking group ASH. This group is anti-smoking; it was the pro-smoking group Forest that welcomed the decision.

Anyway, it's a beautiful morning in Cambridgeshire and I am currently sitting in the garden, drinking coffee and reading the summary report on the consultation.

The first thing I checked, when I downloaded it yesterday, was the number of responses.

According to Jeremy Hunt's ministerial statement – which I imagine was written by a civil servant at the Department of Health – a majority of "detailed" responses (2424 in total) favoured plain packaging:

Of those who provided detailed feedback, some 53 per cent were in favour of standardised packaging while 43 per cent thought the Government should do nothing about tobacco packaging.

Echoing Chris Snowdon's comment here, I'm amazed those figures are so close. Given that the pro-plain pack brigade included a vast number of state sector organisations who were no doubt encouraged to submit a "detailed response", it says a lot that 'our' side almost matched them.

It means that a hell of a lot of private (as opposed to state-funded) companies and organisations submitted responses to the consultation.

They included retailers, tobacconists, packaging companies, design agencies, think tanks, you name it – a far broader cross-section of the country (I would argue) than the narrow public sector that contributed 53 per cent of the "detailed responses".

When it comes to the public response there's no contest. According to the summary report, which I imagine must have been written through gritted teeth and tear-stained cheeks:

In total, 665,989 campaign responses were received from 24 separate campaigns. Around two-thirds of campaign responses received were from people who are opposed to the introduction of standardised packaging (total of 427,888 responses) and one-third of campaign responses received were from people who are in support (238,101 responses) ...

A breakdown of the figures is quite interesting, to me anyway, because Forest's Hands Off Our Packs campaign did even better than we thought.

For almost a year – since the consultation closed in August 2012 – we claimed to have submitted the names of 235,000 people opposed to plain packaging.

At the time this figure was challenged by our opponents, including the APPG on Smoking and Health (run by ASH), who effectively accused Forest of cheating.

Now the consultation report has been published I see that the Department of Health credits Forest with the following:

Postcards – 55,201
Petition – 214,653

Total – 269,854

So we underestimated the success of our campaign! You couldn't make it up.

As an aside, I also note that the DH has included – on the pro-plain pack side – a total of 19,863 votes submitted by Avaaz, a global online community that launched a petition in favour of plain packaging 48 hours before the closing date for the consultation and just hours after Forest announced that we had raised 235,000 signatures against plain packs.

See: Plain packs brigade calls for international rescue.

It hardly matters now, but what a joke!

Anyway, add all the responses together and the slim "majority" in favour of plain packs changes dramatically.

The true result – not mentioned in the DH's ministerial statement or by reporters yesterday – is that 64 per cent of responses were against plain packaging with only 36 per cent in favour.

Now that's a landslide.

Finally, what of Labour health spokesman Diane Abbott, who Angela and I both had the 'pleasure' of going head-to-head with yesterday, me on LBC, Angela on Sky News.

Abbott – like many tobacco control advocates – has repeatedly accused the Government of doing a U-turn on plain packaging. It's both desperate and shameless.

Read my lips, Diane. A junior health minister (Anna Soubry) may have expressed support for plain packaging but the Government never committed itself to the policy.

The Government promised a public consultation and it delivered. It then considered the evidence and responses and rightly decided to postpone a decision until more compelling evidence is found to support the measure.

In the circumstances I consider that to be a sensible, mature decision, unlike the knee-jerk or unprincipled reactions more commonly associated with today's politicians.

The irony, of course, is that it was Soubry who had to stand before Parliament and explain the Government's decision.

Now that was a delicious and unexpected treat.

Who says there isn't a god?

See also: Fantastic Friday (Dick Puddlecote), Plain packaging officially ditched (Velvet Glove Iron Fist).

Finally you might like to read the report itself – Consultation on the standardised packaging of tobacco products: summary report.

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Reader Comments (4)

The Guardian and John Middleton should be ashamed. Middleton is essentially lying in the hope of political gain. I am tired of being forced to pay for people to lie to me.

The BBC should have done a better job of portraying the scale and nature of the opposition to plain packs. I don't believe that this was dishonesty on its part but the result of lazy journalism and establishment bias. The data was available so there is no real excuse. The BBC loves "experts" and cannot grasp the fact that public health roles require little in the way of expertise.of any kind.

Saturday, July 13, 2013 at 16:16 | Unregistered CommenterIvan D

lt's as though the public response never happened when you read or listen to the MSM. Even more surprising is that the government, who are being taking a lot of political stick over the non implementation of PP, are also saying nothing about it.

FFS, all they have to say is 'the public responded overwhelmingly against PP'. It's that bloody easy.

Maybe they'll adopt the EU approach where we'll all have to do it over again because it was the wrong result?

l've said it before but l'll say it again ... Well done Angela, great work and great result!

Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 0:01 | Unregistered CommenterSmoking Hot

Oh, well done to all involved. Thank you all for taking the liberty to stand up, and very glad to see that we were all counted!

Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 12:10 | Unregistered CommenterFiona

Well, probably in Middleton's mind there is only public health and they all voted for it. Anybody outside isn't worth a light, non persons and not worth the slightest consideration.

Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 20:13 | Unregistered CommenterFrank J

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