An anti-plain packaging campaign advert placed in national newspapers by one of the biggest tobacco giants has been banned after it was found to have made false claims about government policy.
The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that ads run by Japan Tobacco International (JTI) in the national press in 2012, were wrong to state the government had "rejected" plain packaging for tobacco because "there was no credible evidence" to support such a policy in 2008.
The government had indeed included plain packaging as one of a number of issues during its consultation on tobacco control and decided not to press ahead with plain packaging at that point in time, but made clear it had intended to keep the measure under review.
Therefore the ASA concluded that to suggest that the government had totally rejected the policy was misleading and breached the advertising code of practice.
JTI had also used the same bold claim in campaigns in Westminster, designed to influence MPs on the issue. Stephen Williams MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health, said on Monday he would be notifying fellow parliamentarians of the ASA ruling to warn them that the tobacco industry funded 'Hands Off Our Packs' campaign was repeating the misleading wording used in the ads.
"MPs should be aware that the claims made by JTI are false and misleading. Proposals to introduce standardised packaging are still being considered by the government," he said.
"The evidence is clear: plain packs will discourage children from taking up smoking and will prevent many young people from entering a life-long addiction resulting in poor health and premature death. Tobacco companies know that plain packaging will deter new smokers and that is why they are fighting tooth and nail to stop it."
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of anti-smoking health charity ASH, which was among three groups to complain about the advertisement, said the advert was "another blatant example of tobacco industry attempts to derail public health policy".
Plain packaging for cigarettes has already been introduced in Australia. Since the introduction of the ban in November 2012, shopkeepers have complained they are no longer able to sort the brands easily, or tell which is which unless closely inspected.
Many of the pro-smoking lobby have also warned that plain packaging would lead to an increase in black market fakes, as the packets would be easier to mimic.
Cancer Research UK surveyed 2,000 adults last year and found 63% of Brits were now in favour of adopting the plain packs.
The issue was raised again last week after the Guardian claimed the plain packaging rules could be announced in the Queen's speech in May.
A Department of Health spokesperson said they could not confirm the Guardian's story, nor did they know its source.
Update: 13 March, 10:10
Since this article went to press, JTI has responded to the ASA's decision by saying it was disappointed that its advertisement had been banned by the watchdog.
"JTI’s views were based on the fact that the Department of Health first consulted on plain packaging in 2008, and at that time the government decided not to introduce it. The then Secretary of State for Health said there was “no evidence base that [plain packaging] actually reduces the number of young children smoking," JTI said in a statement.
"While we disagree with the ASA's decision, we will not use the advertisements in question again. We also disagree with those who it appears wish to close down this debate and will continue to express our concerns, as it is essential that common sense and sound evidence prevail."
JTI added it had been "surprised" by recent media reports suggesting plain packaging would be included in the Queen’s speech in May given the Department of Health has maintained the government "has an open mind on this issue".
It accused the pro-plain packaging lobby of "using the media" to pressure the government into adopting their policy.
"Given the importance of this issue the government is duty bound to provide robust and compelling evidence that plain packaging would achieve its policy objectives," it concluded.
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