Tobacco industry manipulation of illicit trade research

29 Jul 2020 - 12:45

By Hana Ross

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to estimate the size of the illicit cigarette market. I do it not only to fulfil the mandate of the Knowledge Hub to assist FCTC parties with technical aspects of tobacco control, but also because I find it intellectually challenging and stimulating. It turns out that the tobacco industry is paying a lot of money to consulting groups to do the same – think about how measure illicit trade.

I have reviewed a number of  reports funded by the tobacco industry, and it amazes me how sloppy the work is: lack of details, inconsistencies in applying methods, reliance on data provided either by the client, i.e. the tobacco industry, or by a third party, without deeper scrutiny, and just plain mistakes.

My critiques of industry-funded reports have been published and disseminated (see More myth than fact and Failed, for example). They have motivated the authors to respond to the criticisms by acknowledging some of their mistakes. For that reason, I was rather hesitant to do yet another review of an industry-sponsored report, the Asia Illicit Tobacco Indicator 2017 contracted to Oxford Economics, a U.K.-based think tank. If they’ve already acknowledged and corrected the previous mistakes I pointed out, what else could I find?

I was wrong. The new report had the same sloppiness, inconsistencies, mistakes all over again. Why would the funder, Philip Morris International (PMI), pay for such a substandard product? Unless a substandard product with a pre-determined results is the deliverable. 

One inevitably concludes that the quality of the study is unimportant as long as the results are aligned with industry rhetoric that higher tobacco taxes increase illicit trade. On that front, I have bad news for PMI: Oxford Economics did not deliver. Upon an examination of the Asia Illicit Tobacco Indicator 2017 report, the reader will note that illegal cigarette trade went down in four of the five countries included in the report that increased their tobacco excise tax in 2017. They raised taxes and the volume of illicit cigarettes in those countries decreased. This fact was never mentioned in the report, it was hidden.

Oxford Economics deserve some kudos for their effort: the report is graphically attractive and easy to navigate, albeit to wrong results and incorrect conclusions. The best part of the report for me is the footnotes; they reveal the weaknesses of the methods. Now I am wondering – will there even be any footnotes in the next report on illicit trade produced by Oxford Economics?

Any credit to PMI? It paid a lot for a mediocre report, but made sure it was distributed at flashy gatherings and arrived in the hands of those who decide tobacco tax policies in South East Asia, the geographic focus of this report.

Critiques of this type of report by academics are important. They take wind out of the industry’s sails, and hopefully convince some policy makers to rely more on academic studies when it comes to measuring the size of illicit trade.