Last month, I wrote an article ('The Dark Market') which showed how ASH, Cancer Research, Lord Darzi and the Department of Health managed to convince the House of Lords that the cost of converting a shop to comply with the 'dark market' (ie. removing tobacco products from sight) was unrealistically low.
I looked at e-mails released under the Freedom of Information Act which showed how a quote from a Canadian shop-fitter was misinterpreted, manipulated and recalculated to come up with the lowest possible price. The intention, clearly, was to persuade politicians that the new law would not damage the thousands of businesses that would have to comply with it.
When the shop-fitter saw what ASH and the DoH had done, he repeatedly told them that their price (a mere £120 per shop) was far too low. Both organisations ignored him and the quote was cited as gospel both in the press and in the House of Lords debate (which passed it without amendment). Even today, the incorrect figure continues to appear on literature from groups like Smokefree Action and Cancer Research.
The whole affair is extremely revealing as an example of how "official" figures are constructed and contorted for political ends. As such, it is good to see that The Guardian has now covered the story:
The government has been accused of misleading parliament over the cost for retailers of implementing the controversial tobacco display ban.Internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that officials at the Department of Health (DoH) were warned by manufacturers that they had dramatically underestimated how much it would cost retailers to modify their shops to comply with the ban.
Indeed they were. The man dragged into this farce was Canadian shop-fitter Phil Beder of 4 Solutions Displays, who told ASH's Deborah Arnott quite explicitly:
I want to reiterate that the last e-mail I sent to you (April 28) was a complete clariﬁcation of all costs associated with covering of tobacco.
I also want to make sure you are not making additional assumptions on costs to suit your internal needs...
4 Solutions Displays cannot produce, deliver and install for the minimal dollars you are publishing...
We would ask that you remove 4 Solutions Displays from any of your promotional materials as the numbers are misrepresenting the actual costs to a wide base of retailers in the UK...
I trust your organization will insure the entire ﬁnancial story is told to all and not choose a single number that doesn’t represent the actual facts.”
Beder also told her that the tobacco display ban in Canada had damaged small businesses and had not led to a reduction in youth smoking (which was the reason given for bringing in the ban in the first place). None of this was ever relayed to the public or mentioned in the House of Lords debate.
Instead, as The Guardian reports:
Ash responded by telling 4 Solutions that it was confident its figures were correct.
The Canadian manufacturer also wrote to the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, which is opposed to the ban, confirming that the full cost would be far higher than the figure quoted by the DoH. When the federation emailed the DoH on 15 May to highlight the discrepancy, an official replied saying: "We are confident of the validity of the estimates that ministers have been quoting."
The Department of Health has responded to The Guardian's investigation, saying:
"Point-of-sale displays have already been removed in a number of countries, including Canada, [where] removing point-of-sale display has coincided with a fall in smoking prevalence rates among 15 to 19-year-olds from 29% in 2002 to 19% in 2007."
But this, too, is a gross distortion of the facts, as I have explained before:
Since only four of Canada's thirteen territories had enacted any sort of a tobacco display ban prior to 2007, it makes it extremely unlikely that the decline in teen smoking between 2002 and 2007 could have been due to such legislation.
If tobacco display bans were effective in reducing the smoking rate, only Saskatchewan (which was the first to pass such a law) has had enough time to see the benefit. As it happens, Saskatchewan has the highest smoking rate of any Canadian territory. One cannot blame the anti-smoking advocates for looking for evidence to support their latest ban, but it seems - once again - that the myth does not fit the reality.
Sometimes, if you're in a hole, it is best to just stop digging. For the Department of Health and ASH, that time has surely come.
(Thanks to Belinda for spotting the article. The whole 'dark market' article can be read here [PDF])