Cancer Research wins cigarette ad ban

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The Cancer Research charity launched a complaint against a campaign advert for the tobacco industry - which had objected to plain cigarette packaging on the grounds that it would make life easier for smugglers.

The Advertising Standards Agency responded by banning the advert. But why?


Misleading

The advert itself was run in two national newspapers by cigarette company Gallagher, attacking the idea of plain packaging. The adverts said: "Why make it easier for criminals to make a packet? In the current economic climate, the black market in tobacco is booming. Standardising packs will make them easier to fake and cost taxpayers millions more than the £3 billion lost in unpaid duty last year."

Cancer Research said that the advert was misleading on two points. First the claim that the black market was booming was misleading. It quoted HMRC which reported in 2011 that black market trading in cigarettes had fallen significantly over the previous decade.

Gallagher responded that it was measuring growth over the previous 30 years, and that the scale of the black market trade in cigarettes meant that the statement stood up to scrutiny.

The ASA disagreed, and said the statement was misleading. It said: "We acknowledged that the [HMRC] report suggested that the state of the tobacco illicit market was presently a major problem which had a considerable financial impact on the UK. However, we also noted that the report stated that "the tobacco illicit market had been reduced significantly over the last decade".

Exaggerated

In its second point, Cancer Research said that the claim of £3 billion lost in unpaid duty had been exaggerated - as it was the upper end of an estimate by HMRC - and combined the highest estimate for the sums lost through illegal cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco.

Gallagher responded by saying the figure came from an HMRC source, and had been quoted by a number of public officials without qualification.

The ASA agreed with the charity. It said that the use of the statistic (and a picture of a packet of cigarettes) implied the £3 billion had been lost through the sale of illegal cigarettes alone. It also noted an enormous difference between the higher and lower estimates given by the HMRC report: combining the two lower estimates would have given a figure of £1.2 billion.

It said: "We therefore concluded that, in the absence of qualifying text, providing additional information about the methods used to calculate the "£3 billion" figure, or any information indicating that it was an upper estimate relating to all tobacco products, the figure was likely to mislead." It ruled that the adverts must not appear in their current form again.

What does it mean?

The adverts were intended to build public support for keeping branded cigarette packets. Withdrawing them means the company will not be able to do so through the use of these particular tactics.

This is the second time Gallagher's adverts have been slapped down by ASA. The first set were complained about by Ash, Ash Scotland and Cancer Research, after they claimed the government had abandoned a policy of plain packaging in 2008 - when it had actually decided to keep it under review.

There is a chance, therefore, that this is part of a broader strategy by anti-cancer and anti-smoking charities, who are passionate supporters of a plain packaging law.

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