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Tobacco plain packaging legislation: a content analysis of commentary posted on Australian online news
  1. Becky Freeman
  1. Correspondence to Becky Freeman, School of Public Health, Sydney Medical School, The University of Sydney, 226A, Edward Ford Building A27, NSW 2006, Australia; becky.freeman{at}sydney.edu.au

Abstract

Introduction In April 2010, the Australian government became the first to announce legislation mandating that tobacco products be sold in plain packaging. The announcement generated significant media coverage and public feedback. The increased readership of and community commentary on online news present an opportunity to assess the range of arguments most likely to be used by opponents to this policy.

Methods A content analysis was conducted of reader commentary posted on Australian online news items about the plain packaging announcement. Reader opinion polls on the plain packaging were also recorded. All arguments opposed to plain packaging contained within reader comments were categorised into 11 debating frames.

Results Of 117 relevant news items, 41 included 1818 reader comments. 1187 (65.3%) comments contained no reference to plain packaging, and mainly addressed a tobacco tax rise announced at the same time. The comments about plain packaging were more than 2.5 times more likely to oppose than support the policy. The dominant argumentative frame, comprising 27% of oppositional comments, was that plain packaging would be ineffective in reducing smoking. Online reader poll results showed equal support for and opposition to plain packaging.

Conclusions The results of this study can be used by tobacco control advocates to anticipate opposition and assist in reframing and counteracting arguments opposed to plain packaging.

  • Plain packaging
  • news media
  • public opinion
  • advertising and promotion
  • packaging and labelling
  • public policy
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Introduction

On 29 April 2010, in what has been heralded as a new benchmark in global leadership for tobacco control, the Australian government announced that it would be introducing legislation for the mandatory plain packaging of tobacco products on 1 January 2012 with full implementation from 1 July 2012.1 The announcement received overwhelming support from the public health sector, where it was described as ‘the most important national development in tobacco control since tobacco advertising was banned in the 1990s’2 and that it was ‘difficult to exaggerate the importance’3 of such reforms. The investment firm, Citigroup, noted that plain packaging was the ‘biggest regulatory threat to the industry, as packaging is the most important way tobacco companies have to communicate with the consumer and differentiate their products’.4 The tobacco industry was incendiary in its opposition to the legislation, with Imperial Tobacco stating that it would ‘make every effort to protect its brands and associated intellectual property and including, if necessary, take legal action’.5

The ground-breaking policy announcement attracted extensive news media coverage. Analyses of news coverage and letters to editors have been useful in understanding how tobacco-related issues are framed in the Australian news media.6–8 Such analyses can provide instructive advanced intelligence for tobacco control advocates in other jurisdictions about the range and frequency of argument that may be directed at future policy reforms. It can allow for strategic planning of public communication efforts to counteract and reframe opposition to such reforms.

Internationally, the public increasingly accesses news media online.9 Many news websites publish both online-only content and content that has also appeared in traditional channels. Between 2006 and 2008, the number of unique browsers accessing websites of Australian major daily newspapers more than doubled.10 Accessing information is a key online activity, engaged in by 78% of regular internet users (those who are online at least weekly).11 Traditional channels like newspapers allow for limited and editor-selected reader response via letters to the editor. By contrast, online news promotes instant reader reaction and participation through tools such as posted comments and poll voting. While content analysis of traditional news media is an established health research method12 used in informing tobacco control strategy, no tobacco control study has analysed the reactions of news consumers who are motivated to respond and interact with other respondents online.

The plain packaging announcement presented an ideal opportunity to examine how online readers react to tobacco control reforms. As several other countries have expressed interest in following Australia's lead on plain packaging,13 understanding how those opposed to policy reform frame their arguments should be particularly useful in anticipating such opposition and in planning communication strategies to counteract oppositional arguments gaining political traction. This paper describes the findings of a content analysis of public commentary accompanying online news items about the Australian plain packaging announcement.

Methods

To locate relevant online news items (articles, editorials and blogs), the term ‘plain packaging’ was searched through Google News (http://news.google.com). The search was restricted to Australian websites for the period 28 April 2010 (the day before the government announcement) to 8 May 2010, after which all news on the issue had dissipated. From all of the resulting items, all online posteri comments were collected. Additionally, if a reader poll was included with the article, the questions and results were documented.

All poster comments were recorded and content analysed. Comments were first categorised in terms of overall support for plain packaging of tobacco products with five categories emerging: (1) opposed; (2) opposed, but in favour of alternate tobacco control policies; (3) in favour; (4) mixed, as the comments contained arguments both opposed to and in favour of plain packaging; (5) not applicable, as the comments did not include any reference to the plain packaging proposals.

Because the primary focus of the study was to document and categorise the principal frames used in opposition arguments to plain packaging, all counter arguments contained within the opposed, opposed but in favour of other measures and mixed categories were then coded. Entman's description of framing as the rhetorical process in which speakers and writers ‘select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient … in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation’ was applied to a random sample of 40 comments14 and 11 distinct frames emerged. Two researchers each coded the sample independently and then compared coding results to agree on the final list of 11 frames.15 If the same argument was made multiple times within a single comment, it was only counted once. Each comment contained at least one and a maximum of six different frames.

Intercoder reliability tests were conducted for both the overall classification of comments into the five categories of support for plain packaging and also for the coding of frames used in oppositional arguments. A group of six coders were given a random sample of 20 poster comments to code for support and then another random sample of 30 opposing arguments to code for argumentative frame. To establish intercoder reliability for codes requiring subjective judgement, kappa statistics were calculated.16 The kappa statistic is the most commonly used statistic to measure the agreement between two or more observers that takes into account the fact that observers will sometimes agree or disagree simply by chance.17

All direct quotes from the online comments mentioned below are uncorrected for spelling or grammar and are produced as they were published online.

Results

A total of 117 online news items were found. These included content published exclusively online and content that had been published or broadcast in other media and also posted online. Of the 117 news items, 41 included reader comments. A total of 1818 comments were published on the 41 news items. The range of the number of comments per item was very broad, from 1 to 318 with an average of 44 (SD 70). The kappa value for intercoder reliability for coding the comments for support of plain packaging was 0.87 and for the coding of argumentative frames was 0.94. Kappa values over 0.70 indicate high reliability.

Comments not about plain packaging

The bulk of the comments (1187 or 65.3%) were not considered as they contained no content about or reference to the proposed plain packaging reforms. This was mostly attributable to the government having simultaneously announced a 25% tax increase on tobacco products at the same time as the plain packaging announcement. Many comments included remarks specifically about the tax increase. For example:

(Prime Minister) Kevin Rudd's no better than a drug dealer, reaping the benifits of a tax hike while claiming its for your health. What a joke! People are addicted to smoking and putting the price up will do nothing. If he was really serious they would spend the money from the tax on subsidising patches or chapax to help people quit. This is just a joke. Ill be doing my best to vote you out this year Kevin so good luck.18

The other common frames of these irrelevant comments were generalised tirades against government or politicians, tobacco control supporters and smokers, the nanny state or abuse targeted at other posters. While many of these comments were overwhelmingly negative, they were not coded as opposed to plain packaging as they lacked specificity and would be a common frame in virtually any media content analysis of a tobacco control policy.19

The remaining 646 comments were classified as 25% (454) not in support which included 18.2% (331) opposed and 5.9% (108) opposed but in favour of other tobacco control measures, 9.7% (177) in favour and the remaining 0.8% (15) as mixed.

Comments in favour

A total of 177 (9.7%) comments were in favour of plain packaging; 34 (19.2%) of these 177 supportive comments were concentrated in response to one news story on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) online news website.20 These comments were primarily disputing the article's headline that packaging would result in the government paying the tobacco industry compensation for loss of intellectual property. For example, this poster suggested that ‘nobody is stripping intellectual property from anybody, the new law would just ban it from packaging. They can keep their logo for their letterheads and signage on their properties’.20 Others pointed out the compensation claim was being made by the Institute of Public Affairs, an organisation described by one as being ‘influenced by the fact that they are funded by those drug pushers, the tobacco industry’.20

Opposed, but in support of other tobacco control measures

Of the 454 comments not in favour, nearly a quarter (n=108) were opposed to plain packaging, but offered alternative tobacco control policy suggestions which they supported. These included: removing all chemicals from cigarettes, subsidising quitting aids and e-cigarettes, educating young people about harms, criminalising possession of tobacco for underage smokers, issuing ‘addict's cards’ to current smokers and making cigarettes available on prescription only. The most common proposal (31.5%; n=34) was that smoking and/or tobacco products should be banned completely. Posters reasoned that anything less than a ban was either a futile or a hypocritical measure. Others argued that a ban would happen if the government ‘was serious’21 about or ‘really wanted’18 successful tobacco control. It was also contended that while any regulation was overly intrusive, an outright ban was acceptable.

When will they realise this is a legal product that generates a lot of money for our useless governments? If it's legal, leave it alone—or simply ban it.18

Framing of arguments opposed to plain packaging

The comments were more than 2.5 times more likely to be opposed to than in favour of plain packaging. A total of 761 opposing arguments were coded from 454 comments not in support and 15 mixed comments (table 1).

Table 1

Summary of the total arguments made opposing plain packaging of tobacco products*

Plain packaging will not work

The most dominant frame with nearly twice the prevalence as the next most common frame, with 27.1% (206), was that plain packaging ‘would not work’. This included comments that such a measure would not stop the poster from smoking, that there are other measures, including making tobacco illegal that should be taken instead and that any attempt to reduce smoking was futile.

Are people really that stupid???? Does the government really think that by changing the packet to a plain box would make people stop? Pull your head in!21

Well, that's it, this will definately fix things, after all I know I and everyone else that I know that smokes found ourselves looking at the glorious packaging one day on the way out of the supermarket and decided we just-had-to have this simply sublime artwork in our pockets and handbags for all time. Isn't it time we got real, people aren't just going to up and quit no matter how much it bleeds them dry or how much of a pariah it makes them.22

I may be going out on a limb here, but I am not alone in having purchased the odd illicit bag of narcotic for the odd office party. Its not very frequent in my circle of friends, but it happens every week in almost any industry you could care to name. Do I ask for Dunhill? Do I ask for Winfields? No, I ask for a plain bag, nothing more nothing less… Not having a brand on the bag doesn't seem to have helped the war on drugs at all—why would these twits think cigarettes would be any different.????22

An additional 5.9% (45) doubted that plain packaging would prevent youth from taking up smoking and that policymakers were out of touch with young smokers.

Kids take up smoking, or any other drug, because of peer pressure and wanting to be “macho”. Advertising only causes brand switching.23

Smoking for young people is purely an image. They think it looks cool. There are currently cigarette brands on the market with minimalist white packaging already and they are very popular among young smokers (even considered the highest quality). To reduce rates of smoking in young people you need to make it seem abnormal or “uncool”.20

Anti-Prime Minister Rudd and anti-Labor

The next most common theme with 15.4% (117) of the comments was statements criticising the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, or the Australian Labor Party. These arguments framed plain packaging as ‘policy on the run’20 by a government that was resorting to ‘populist ideas to cover their tracks and divert attention from their constant failures.’18 Other posters used the opportunity to lampoon the Labor government:

A picture of Comrade Rudd on the packet should be enough to deter people.18

Distraction from tobacco tax increase

A total of 77 (10.1%) arguments stated that plain packaging was merely a distraction, and that in reality the government was ‘addicted’ to the revenue it derives from tobacco tax. These arguments doubted government's sincerity to actually reduce smoking and accused the government of knowingly implementing measures that would fail in order to maximise tobacco tax revenue. The fact that tobacco remains a legal product was cited as further evidence that the government relied on smokers to pay high levels of tax.

This is just another con and a great big dash for cash to take the heat off all their other failed policies. If they had any conviction they would ban tobacco, but they won't because it generates way too much revenue, way and above what the smokers cost our health system.18

Nanny state

‘Nanny state’ type arguments24 comprised 66 (8.7%) of the opposing statements. These included arguments that plain packaging trampled on business rights, personal freedoms and ignored the fact that tobacco was a legal product used by consenting adults.

By what right does the government dictate cigarette packaging? It's the individual's choice whether they smoke or not, and none of the government's business.25

I think whether or not this will work is irrelevant—the nanny state strikes again. How much longer will the government and the do-gooders continue to attack a legal product?26

Other health issues are more important and the slippery slope

Sixty-three (8.3%) opposing arguments suggested that there were more pressing health issues that needed addressing over tobacco use. Unhealthy foods and alcohol were singled out as allegedly bigger threats to health. Obesity was described as ‘costing the country just as much as smoking now’22 and one poster provided a link to recent news coverage27 that obesity had overtaken smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in Australia.

When is the govt. going to require mars bars etc. to be sold in plain wrapping? Obesity now causes more premature deaths than smoking after all.22

Just under 3% (22) claimed that plain packaging was the start of a ‘slippery slope’ policy that would lead to unwarranted restrictions on other potentially harmful products, including unhealthy food and alcohol.

Great—why not stop there, lets have all sugary drinks in plain packaging too, and beer, and burgers, and lock up people who don't do enough exercise, and then what about cars, lets have them all the same and make them all have great fuel economy and low emissions, and why not then make everyone have the same salary and wear the same (safe and discrete) clothing.25

Tobacco industry compensation

Immediately following the plain packaging announcement, the free market lobby group the Institute of Public Affairs asserted that plain packaging was a violation of international trade mark law and would result in the government paying $3.4 billion in compensation to the tobacco industry for loss of intellectual property. No data were provided to support this claim. Fifty-two (6.8%) arguments reiterated these legal claims and expressed anger that governments would spend, ‘millions of taxpayers dollars to fight off legal challenges from cashed up tobacco companies.’18

Smoking is only about addiction

Addiction was viewed as an intractable barrier to the success of plain packaging by 5.9% (45) of posters. ‘Are they joking! This is an addiction people. It wouldn't matter if they wrapped them in cow dung, people would still buy them because they are addicted!’25 Included within this frame were comments that the contents of the package matter far more and that smokers ‘couldn't give a continental what the package looks like it's the addictive substances contained within that will always be the draw card.’28

Smokers and the industry will find loopholes

Forty-five posters (5.9%) felt that policy would fail as smokers would use attractive cigarette cases or purchase counterfeit or smuggled branded packs. These arguments framed plain packaging as pointless legislation as there would always be loopholes for the tobacco industry or smokers to exploit.

The plain labelling will do absolutely nothing except create a market for old-fashioned cigarette cases.29

Plain smoke packets will send in the dodgy smoke makers an easy path to copy fake brands an then end up in milk bars and small shops which in turn will kill and harm people because the ingredients are not properly regulated or processed. I can see lots of sales of glitzy pack holders for the younger generation.18

Plain packs will benefit the tobacco industry

A small number of people (23 (3%)) were opposed to the plain packaging policy as they believed that the tobacco industry would benefit in some way. That plain packaging would lead to ‘less cost for simpler packaging’18 or that it would enable the ‘tobacco companies to “unify” their market into a single high-tar, high-nicotine product—doing even more damage to the average smoker.’20

Poll results

Nine articles22 25 29–35 included one of four different online polls regarding support for plain packaging policy. Polls on controversial topics are a common and low cost tool to increase web traffic and promote user interactivity on news websites.36 While those who complete these polls are self-selected and the results, therefore, may not reflect community attitudes, they do serve as an indicator of reader engagement and opinion. Based on the three polls that supplied the total number of voters (30 726), there was a nearly even split with 49% (15 171) in favour of and 51% (15 555) opposed to plain packaging (table 2).

Table 2

Online poll question results

Discussion

The high volume of news articles and associated poster comments indicates that plain tobacco packaging legislation can be exceptionally newsworthy and arouse strong public opinion. The comments unsupportive of plain packaging were more than 2.5 times more common than those supportive of the policy. This could be because those supporting the policy saw little need to respond to news reports as their views were confirmed and upheld in the government's decision and consistent with the overwhelmingly supportive reporting of tobacco control issues in Australian news media,6 whereas those with anti-tobacco control views may feel unrepresented in public discourse.

Little is known about regular posters to newspaper blog communities. A 2010 study of news discussion forums hosted by the British Broadcasting Corporation showed that negative emotions motivate forum participants to express their opinion when writing a post and the most active users were those with negative views on events.37 The online sphere also provides an opportunity for vitriolic critics to bypass traditional editorial gatekeepers and readily publish their responses to news items.38 The extent to which the distribution of online comments is then representative of community views on plain packaging is questionable. A 2008 survey of 408 smokers and non-smokers in Western Australia found that only 10% of those surveyed opposed plain packaging, 56% supported the measure and the remaining 34% had no opinion.39 However, the over-representation of negative comments online enabled this paper to provide an analysis of the type of arguments that are most likely to be raised in opposition to plain packaging.

Studies of blog comments have shown that participating in posting comments helps to build a sense of community. It may be that some blogs have become popular conduits for critics of government and government policies to voice their opinions.40 As smoking and the tobacco industry become increasingly denormalised,41 overwhelmingly anonymous, online avenues may increase in popularity as ‘safe’ outlets for strident pro-smoking views. Additionally, while tobacco control advocates have long engaged in generating news stories and letters to the editor,42 little is known about how best to interact with online media and so these voices may be missing from the comments.

It is also worth considering whether the overwhelming negative response was influenced by the fact that the government announced a significant tobacco tax increase at the same time as the plain packaging. One possible scenario is that announcing the two initiatives separately would only generate two opportunities for a negative public response but it is also possible that plain packaging would be more positively received when announced as a standalone reform. In Australia, tax increases across a variety of issues generally attract negative public responses,43–45 unless such increases are directed at essential social services.46 The merits of plain packaging may have been lost in the outrage of smokers having to pay more for their tobacco.

The most prevailing argument in opposition to plain packaging was that it would not ‘work’. Three months following the policy announcement, this same ‘won't work’ frame dominated the Alliance of Australian Retailers Federal election mass media advertising campaign aimed at stopping the plain packaging legislation.47 The Alliance campaign was fully funded by the tobacco industry, receiving $1 million from Imperial Tobacco Australia, $2.2 million from British American Tobacco Australia and $2.1 million from Philip Morris Limited.48 The key message of the campaign advertisements, featuring a series of testimonies from concerned retailers, was that plain packaging ‘won't work, so why do it’.ii

The plain packaging legislation was clearly seen as a Labor Party initiative, and as such more than 15% of posters targeted their opposition at the Party and the then leader Kevin Rudd, often threatening to take their vote elsewhere should the legislation go through. Interestingly, the opposition Liberal Party was not openly against the legislation, with leader Tony Abbot conceding that ‘we'll certainly consider that (plain packaging) in government.’49 Despite the online commentary, support for tobacco control is not clearly split among left and right of centre political parties and is an issue that crosses political ideologies. This also holds true internationally, the Conservative Party coalition government in the UK opened public consultation of plain packaging regulations in November 2010.50

Once one country successfully adopts an innovative tobacco control policy measure, it is often rolled out to other nations.51 Retail tobacco display bans and graphic health warnings were once radical legislation, but with widespread implementation are now considered best practice in tobacco control. The tobacco industry and its allies have a history of countering these globally adopted measures with the same legal, economic, political and personal arguments. The results of this study can be used by tobacco control advocates internationally to anticipate this opposition and assist in reframing and counteracting arguments opposed to plain packaging.

What this paper adds

  • This is the first paper to systematically document and analyse the common opposition arguments to plain packaging legislation of tobacco products in Australia.

  • This paper is also the first to assess how readers of online news frame and comment on tobacco control policy reforms.

  • This research complements and builds on the larger body of content analysis research of tobacco control news articles.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Brett Lucas for assistance in recording the online news items and poster comments; Kevin McGeechan, Andrea Fogarty, Kathy Flitcroft, Abby Haynes, Ross MacKenzie and Rachael Morton for their assistance with the intercoder reliability test and Melanie Wakefield and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on the original submission.

References

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Footnotes

  • Linked articles 044446.

  • Funding National Health and Medical Research Council project grant 570869.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • i A poster is defined as somebody who posts a message to an online or internet address (Encarta World English Dictionary, UK).

  • ii The ads can be viewed at http://australianretailers.com.au/latestnews.html

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