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Top academic questions 'glorious success' of plain packaging of #tobacco products

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A leading academic has refuted claims that obligatory plain packaging of tobacco products has been a “glorious success”, writes Martin Banks.

Speaking in Brussels on Thursday (7 December), Professor Sinclair Davidson described Australia’s experimentation with plain packaging as a “fiasco”.

Some had claimed that such a ban would curb smoking prevalence but he says there is “no noticeable effect.”

His comments come a week after the first anniversary (1 December) of the Australian legislation coming into effect.

The move has since been followed by several EU member states.

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In Europe, plain packaging was fully implemented from January this year in France and in May in the UK. All packs will be plain in Ireland from September 2018.

A number of other European governments have adopted or are considering plain packaging.

The aim is to replace branded packs with boxes that are indistinguishable from each other bar the brand name on the packet in standard typeface, colour and size.

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The UK was only the second country in the world to pass legislation on standardised packaging after Australia in 2012.

The regulations on standardised packaging are supposed to reduce the appeal and uptake of smoking   but tobacco companies and campaigners claim that the move infringes their human and intellectual property rights.

But Davidson, who is visiting Europe from his home in Australia, told a debate that plain packaging had “not had the desired effect” and went on to urge European governments and the Commission to “distance themselves from a policy that represents the opposite of good governance.”

He also hit out at the “hysterical reaction” to those, such as himself, who had questioned the accuracy and efficacy of studies which had paved the way for  tobacco products legislation.

He said, “We are sometimes portrayed as being in the pay of the tobacco companies but, certainly in my case, I can assure you nothing could be further from the truth.”

Smokers represent 26% of the EU's population, or 100 million adult citizens in Europe.

There have also been calls from public health lobbyists to require other products to be sold in standardized packaging, including alcohol, children’s toys, computer games and fast food. These calls have been predicated on the apparent “success” of the Australian tobacco plain packaging experiment.

But Prof. Davidson says that  “by stigmatizing the product, the Australian government is also targeting the user”, adding: “Plain packs are unlikely to deter people from smoking but the impact on consumer choice could be significant because some brands will almost certainly disappear from the market.”

He said was “no evidence whatsoever” that the ban in Australia had had “any impact at all” on the habits of 14-to-17-year-olds, adding: “The government has tried this approach before, on petrol prices, but its evidence then was skewed as it is how. This suggests to me that that governments will use the statistical ignorance of the population to try to get away with downright lies. I say, look at the evidence because, if you do, you will see that, here, the evidence has been cooked.”

He said: “Tobacco is a legal product. The law should not impose excessive regulations on consumers who know the health risks and don’t need this type of finger-wagging measure.”

Davidson is professor of Institutional Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University, senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and academic fellow at the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Challenging “the stated claims of the public health lobby in general” he that the evidence “is not consistent with the stated aims of the plain packaging policy”.

He said that the Australian plain packaging experiment has been successful seems to be “commonly accepted knowledge.”

He cited a Hastings and Moodie report which states:  “Plain packaging in Australia has been a casebook example of effective tobacco control – a policy measure driven by evidence, carefully designed and implemented, and now rigorously assessed.”

Disputing this, Davidson declared: “Contrary to Hastings and Moodie I can demonstrate, using evidence-based policy principles, that that assessment (to-date) has not been rigorous.”

He added: “Data collected by the Australian government  shows there is, in fact, no evidence that plain packaging leads to a decline in smoking prevalence. There were as many smokers in Australia in 2016 as in 2013.”

Claims about the apparent success of the scheme had relied on data drawn from the Australian National Plain Packaging Survey.

But, on this, he told a packed audience: “We find that the three key papers demonstrating the efficacy of the plain packaging policy introduced in Australia in 2012 suffer from inconsistencies and methodological differences. The results are not consistent across the three papers and are not robust to small changes in method choice. In particular, we found that model fit is invariably poor.”

He added: “We conclude from this that, contrary to the stated claims of the authors of those papers and the public health lobby in general, that the evidence is not consistent with the stated aims of the plain packaging policy.”

Urging European governments to take note of the outcome of plain packaging in Australia, he said, “Governments and the European Commission should distance themselves from a policy that represents the opposite of good governance. It doesn’t achieve its goal, it’s disproportionate, unjustified and unnecessary.”

He added: “Mandatory ugly packaging, sometimes called ‘plain’, is yet another attempt to deormalize a legal product and stigmatize those who consume it.

“Bullying smokers to quit is odious and futile. Consumers are already aware of the health risks associated with smoking.It’s time for governments and health lobbies to stop using smokers as laboratory mice for their extreme policies.”

His comments are backed by Forest EU, a European smokers’ group which organised the event and has called for “balance and real evidence-based policy discussion” on the debate about tobacco regulation.

It also welcomes the creation by the Commission of a “Subsidiarity and Proportionality Task Force” and calls for the Tobacco Products Directive to be “critically assessed”.

In his state of the union speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on the EU not to “meddle in the everyday lives of European citizens by regulating every aspect”.

Forest EU states,”EU countries are already among the most regulated places on earth in which to smoke. Yet, because of the Tobacco Product Directive, adult smokers are subject to a series of punitive measures that infantilize them as consumers and are likely to make no difference to public health.”

In June, Forest EU published its 2017 Manifesto entitled ‘#SmokersAreCitizensToo’. The comprehensive, independent document looks through the policies affecting smokers in Europe and considers what alternative policies European governments and EU institutions should pursue.The ten-page document tackles a number of issues like smoking bans, plain packaging, excessive taxation and youth education.

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Belgium

Clashes break out in Brussels in protests over coronavirus restrictions

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Police and protesters clashed in the streets of Brussels on Sunday (21 November) in demonstrations over government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, with police firing water cannon and tear gas at demonstrators throwing rocks and smoke bombs, witnesses said, write Christian Levaux, Johnny Cotton and Sabine Siebold, Reuters.

About 35,000 people took part in demonstrations, police said, which began peacefully before violence broke out.

Protesters wearing black hoods threw stones at police as they advanced with water cannon at the main junction in front of the European Union Commission headquarters, Reuters journalists said.

Facing up to the police lines, the protesters held hands and chanted "freedom". One protester was carrying a placard reading "when tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty".

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Police forces stand guard as people protest against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) measures near the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium November 21, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Protesters also threw smoke bombs and fireworks, the newspaper Le Soir reported. The situation calmed down later, police said.

Belgium tightened its coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday (17 November), mandating wider use of masks and enforcing work from home, as cases rose in the country's fourth COVID-19 wave. Read more.

There have been 1,581,500 infections and 26,568 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country of 11.7 million people since the pandemic began. Infections are increasing again, with 13,826 new cases reported on average each day.

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Violence has also broken out in anti-restriction protests in Belgium's neighbour the Netherlands in recent days. On Friday, police in Rotterdam opened fire on a crowd.

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European Commission

NextGenerationEU: Commission receives payment request from Spain for €10 billion under the Recovery and Resilience Facility

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The Commission has received the first payment request from Spain under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) for a disbursement of €10 billion in financial support (net of pre-financing). Spain's overall recovery and resilience plan will be financed by €69.5 billion in grants. Payments under the RRF are performance-based and contingent on Spain implementing the investments and reforms outlined in its recovery and resilience plan. This first payment request relates to 52 milestones covering several reforms in the areas of sustainable mobility, energy efficiency, decarbonisation, connectivity, public administration, skills, education and social, labour and fiscal policy.

The Commission now has two months to assess the request. It will then send its preliminary assessment of Spain's fulfilment of the milestones and targets required for this payment to the Council's Economic and Financial Committee. More information on the process of the payment requests under the RRF is available in this Q&A. More information on the Spanish recovery and resilience plan is available here.

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Belgium

'When the Smurfs meet Monkey King'

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'When the Smurfs meet Monkey King' is a children's art exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belgium.

The successful art exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belgium in La Louvière, the birthplace of Surrealism in Belgium that ended on 24 October gave the opportunity to nearly 300 local primary and middle school students in just one week to depict their vision of friendship between China and Belgium.

On 17 October, during the opening ceremony, Françoise Ghiot, Laurent Wimlot, aldermen of La Louvière, and their guests from China and Belgium attended the event. Counsellor Yang Qing, wife of the Chinese Ambassador to Belgium, also recorded a video for the inauguration of the event.

Counsellor Yang Qing said in her speech that she admired the exhibition held in La Louvière. Using pure and innocent artistic perspective, extraordinary creativity and imagination, the children have well defined the cultural elements of both countries. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belgium with children’s eyes, sincere feelings, those future ambassadors of friendship have expressed their visions of a better collaborative future between the two nations.

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Ghiot said in her speech that she was very happy on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belgium to see children’s paintings from China. The art exhibition opened a skylight of artistic exchange for local children.

This children's art exhibition was jointly curated by the city of La Louvière, the Nardone Gallery, and Yellow Vitamines. Through the LPGA (Little Painter Global International Art Exhibition), covering 40 cities and 500 aesthetic education training institutions in China, 5000 children’s work were collected and 200 were finally selected to focus on Belgium. With the innocent help of children's brushes, imagination and understanding, art and culture provided an ideal medium to understanding differences and strengthening the bond between China and Belgium.

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