In July, the Government made a few headlines by suggesting that they were dropping the plan to impose generic packs for cigarettes. Now they’ve made a few more, by suggesting they’re picking it back up again. Thus, when you carry out two U-turns, it forms a perfect circle.
Of course, the Government deny this – they were always waiting for more evidence, not shelving it; the new decision is only to carry out a review, not to press ahead, and so on. But they know and everyone else knows that they were distancing themselves from it in July and embracing it again now.
Here’s the trouble, though. It’s being presented as a politics story – which it is, but only in part. On the Today programme, we heard from some self-consciously grumpy guy called Mark Littlewood from the Institute of Economic Affairs, the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, and Jane Ellison, the public health minister. Littlewood grumbled that he thought it was “extraordinary that anyone would believe that changing the packaging of cigarettes will somehow inform smokers more about the risks they’re taking”. Burnham accused the Government of swerving to avoid “humiliation” in the House of Lords if they didn’t support the changes. And Ellison made gentle soothing noises about children’s health and how “it’s one of the most important public health issues we face in this country” and so on, although not before she’d left a foot in on Burnham and Labour, saying they looked “silly” and “miserable”.
What we didn’t hear, though, was anyone who knew what they were talking about on whether or not the move would work. Oh, Littlewood said that “the evidence from Australia” – where they’ve had plain packaging for a year – was that it wouldn’t work. Mishal Husain, the Today presenter, had already contradicted him and said that the evidence was that it would. Ellison carefully avoided saying anything so that the Government’s cover-story about a review of the evidence wouldn’t be blown, and Burnham said the Government should take action now, so presumably he thinks (or thinks he should say) that the evidence is strong enough already.
But why not just have one person who does this stuff for a living? It’s a fairly straightforward situation, this. All three of them were arguing about whether or not plain packaging reduces smoking uptake. That is an empirical question which can be determined, at least in theory, by statistical evidence. If they were arguing over the morality of restricting companies’ freedom to advertise, we wouldn’t be able to present numbers on that. But no one made that case; the argument appears to be taking place in the area of “what will work to reduce smoking?”
In that case, it’s completely baffling that there wasn’t a single public health professional – a statistician or scientist – who could talk listeners through the evidence, from Australia and elsewhere. For instance, someone could have talked about the different kinds of results which have come out of it, which would explain why Littlewood and Husain seemed to have drawn directly opposed conclusions from the same data. Littlewood is right that there hasn’t been a significant effect on the number of smokers – but then, that’s not all that surprising after only a year. What it does seem to have done is made smoking less attractive: a BMJ paper found that plain-pack smokers found it less enjoyable and thought more about quitting. Whether that will translate to actual reductions in smoking remains to be seen, of course. But in the end, who cares whether this is happening out of political embarrassment or whether Labour were doing it first? The question is: will it do what we want it to do? Getting two politicians in to have a row about it will not help answer that question.
The science writer Martin Robbins has begun a campaign to get more scientists on Question Time, pointing out that all scientists put together have made fewer appearances on the BBC’s flagship politics show than have Dragons’ Den dragons (and the same number as Katie Hopkins off The Apprentice). I have no idea whether that’s a sensible move, but he is on to something: scientists get trotted out on radio and TV (and newspapers, for that matter) to answer questions about exciting but politically irrelevant stories about black holes or genetic studies in orang-utans. But when a politics story is so obviously one about the interpretation of statistics, we get two politicians and a guy from the IEA. It really would have been nice to hear from someone who knows what they’re talking about.