Background The tobacco industry routinely opposes tobacco control policies, often using a standard repertoire of arguments. Following proposals to introduce standardised packaging in New Zealand (NZ), British American Tobacco New Zealand (BATNZ) launched the ‘Agree–Disagree’ mass media campaign, which coincided with the NZ government's standardised packaging consultations. This study examined the logic of the arguments presented and rhetorical strategies employed in the campaign.
Methods We analysed each advertisement to identify key messages, arguments and rhetorical devices, then examined the arguments' structure and assessed their logical soundness and validity.
Results All advertisements attempted to frame BATNZ as reasonable, and each contained flawed arguments that were either unsound or based on logical fallacies. Flawed arguments included misrepresenting the intent of the proposed legislation (straw man), claiming standardised packaging would harm all NZ brands (false dilemma), warning NZ not to adopt standardised packaging because of its Australian origins (an unsound argument) or using vague premises as a basis for claiming negative outcomes (equivocation).
Conclusions BATNZ's Agree–Disagree campaign relied on unsound arguments, logical fallacies and rhetorical devices. Given the industry's frequent recourse to these tactics, we propose strategies based on our study findings that can be used to assist the tobacco control community to counter industry opposition to standardised packaging. Greater recognition of logical fallacies and rhetorical devices employed by the tobacco industry will help maintain focus on the health benefits proposed policies will deliver.
- Tobacco industry
- Packaging and Labelling
- Public policy
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Evidence that tobacco marketing has stimulated and maintained smoking is now well established and has led many governments to ban and restrict advertising and promotion for tobacco products.1 These more restrictive marketing environments have prompted tobacco companies to focus further on product packaging, which they have evolved into a sophisticated and influential marketing medium. Carefully refined brand logos and imagery create aspirational connotations that lure young people to smoking and deter existing smokers from quitting.2 Recognition that on-pack branding represents a powerful marketing channel first stimulated discussion of standardised (or ‘plain’) packaging three decades ago.3 However, legislation implementing this measure did not come into effect until 2012, when Australia became the first country to require standardised packaging of all tobacco products.4 Following Australia's initiative, several other countries, including New Zealand (NZ), passed or announced legislation introducing standardised packaging.
The tobacco industry routinely opposes proportionate policy measures and, in NZ, this opposition has included written and verbal submissions to the NZ Ministry of Health and government representatives against proposed standardised packaging legislation.5 ,6 Industry claims included that standardised packaging was not supported by evidence, breached International Trade agreements, would increase illicit trade, was unfair to consumers and would damage NZ's trade reputation. The industry's opposition also involved public campaigns, including a clearly sponsored mass media campaign that exhorted the public to oppose the legislation. Despite complaints that this campaign promoted smoking, the NZ Ministry of Health ruled there were insufficient grounds to support a prosecution.7
Launched in August 2012, British American Tobacco New Zealand's (BATNZ) ‘Agree–Disagree’ campaign coincided with the first Ministry of Health public standardised packaging consultation period. The campaign employed television, print and radio advertising, supported by press releases, a website and Twitter feeds. Media audits show the television advertising achieved very high reach and frequency of exposure (see online supplementary file 1). Five different advertisement executions variously claimed that standardised packaging would threaten Intellectual Property rights enjoyed by all NZ businesses, damage International Trade, represent poorly considered adoption of untested Australian Law, remove smokers' rights to choose the brand they wished to smoke and create a precedent that would soon be extended to other products (Agree–Disagree advertisements were published on a BATNZ campaign website: http://www.agreedisagree.co.nz/).
A recent analysis found tobacco companies frequently attempt to build constituencies of public support to influence regulator and politician decisions around new tobacco marketing regulations.8 The analysis identified a standard repertoire of arguments used to sway public opinion against legislation, for example, that negative unintended consequences would occur (eg, non-tobacco products will inevitably face similar legislation), legal concerns would arise (eg, in response to alleged misappropriation of Intellectual Property) and there was insufficient evidence that the proposed policy would work (eg, implementation is premature and risky).
Carefully examining the arguments tobacco companies adduce will offer important insights into how the tobacco industry may seek to influence legislative processes and assist decision makers and advocates to challenge specious reasoning used to block, delay or weaken tobacco marketing regulations as well as tobacco control policies more generally. We extended recent studies documenting the strategies that tobacco companies have used in their submissions by undertaking a logical analysis of BATNZ's ‘Agree–Disagree’ campaign. Specifically, we identified rhetorical strategies used in campaign advertisements and analysed the reasoning presented.
The primary data sources for our analyses were the five television commercials (TVCs) developed and aired by BATNZ (table 1). Each advertisement aired for ∼2 weeks and overall the campaign achieved very high reach (estimated 93% reach among 25–54 year olds, see online supplementary file 1). The arguments presented in the TVCs were also communicated via print and radio (they all used the same text for the arguments) and supported by BATNZ press releases.
Drawing on Hatchard et al's9 methods for examining the relevance of tobacco industry submissions during the UK consultation on standardised packaging, we first examined the subject matter, key messages and arguments communicated by each advertisement. We then critiqued these arguments against Hatchard et al's categories (standardised packaging will not work; will have unintended consequences, or implementation followed a flawed process). We next investigated the logical structure of the arguments used and identified logical fallacies on which they relied as well as prominent rhetorical devices used in the advertisements. Three authors (AW, JH and RE) first identified and debated the fallacies and rhetorical devices used; we then sought independent advice from a philosopher (JM) and agreed on the final classifications following discussion within the entire research group. Table 2 provides an overview of argumentation terminology referred to in our analysis.
We applied the principle of charity to ensure we did not ourselves commit a straw man fallacy when analysing BATNZ's arguments. Doing so meant we tested the strongest possible interpretations of these arguments, insofar as these were consistent with BATNZ's apparent intended meaning. Table 3 outlines the fallacies derived from the established literature that we identified in the arguments and which we refer to in our results.
The arguments developed in the ‘Agree–Disagree’ campaign only reflected a subset of those put forth in tobacco industry submissions and in some cases departed from these submissions. For example, none of the advertisements suggested illicit trade would increase, even though industry submissions had developed this claim. Instead, the advertisements advanced more general emotive claims, particularly those relating to national autonomy and Personal Responsibility. To explore these differences further, we analysed the validity and soundness of the arguments advanced.
Intellectual Property: a straw man fallacy
As the name suggests the Intellectual Property advertisement argued that standardised packaging would deprive BATNZ (and other tobacco companies) from using their Intellectual Property. The TVC voice over was accompanied by a visual image of a sign saying ‘If I create it, I should own it’. The argument suggests that standardised packaging would amount to a confiscation or misappropriation of BATNZ's Intellectual Property and relies on the following propositions:
Governments are not warranted to confiscate Intellectual Property (an implied premise).
Branding information is a form of Intellectual Property.
Prohibiting the use of branding information is effectively confiscating that Intellectual Property.
The government is not warranted in prohibiting the use of branding information.
This argument is flawed in at least two respects. First, trademark registrations do not confer positive rights on the mark owners by entitling them to use the mark; instead, trademark owners have a negative right that enables them to prevent others from using the same mark. Standardised packaging legislation does not remove tobacco companies' ability to deprive others from using their Intellectual Property; nor does it entitle governments (or any other parties) to use those trademarks for their own purposes. Instead, standardised packaging imposes some limits on how tobacco companies may use their Intellectual Property. BATNZ's argument misrepresents the government position as they do not intend to remove ownership or to benefit from tobacco companies' Intellectual Property. As proposition 3 is false, the argument is a straw man fallacy that is neither valid nor sound.
Even applying the principle of charity and accepting that standardised packaging effectively confiscates Intellectual Property does not produce a sound argument. Governments can and do restrict individuals' rights to possess and use dangerous items, such as guns and drugs, thus the first premise of BATNZ's argument is untrue, making the argument an unsound enthymeme (ie, it relies on an implicit and unspecified proposition; see table 2).
International Trade: a false dilemma fallacy
NZ has an export-dependent economy, thus allegations that standardised packaging could threaten International Trade invoke serious economic concerns. The International Trade advertisement featured stylised NZ-branded wine (NZ's ninth most important trading category)15 and poses a dilemma where we must either respect all brands of all product types equally or experience negative consequences for all NZ brands. The argument can be presented as
Either NZ respects all brands including cigarette brands or there will be a general loss of respect for NZ international brands that would harm NZ's ability to market its brands internationally.
NZ does not wish to harm its ability to market its products internationally.
NZ must respect all brands, including cigarette brands.
Since standardised packaging proposes discriminate restrictions on how brands of a lethal and addictive product (tobacco) may be marketed, the first premise is very likely to be untrue, thus the argument is based on a false dilemma. The argument could only be sound if the discriminate restrictions applied to cigarette brands resulted in indiscriminate loss of respect for all NZ brands and the introduction of economically harmful restrictions, such as limitations on NZ brands or trademarks used in international markets for products that are neither lethal nor addictive.
The argument also uses equivocation as the term ‘respect’ has several different meanings. For example, to respect the law is to obey it; to respect the views of opponents we might respectfully disagree with them or to respect a dangerous item or environment we might restrict access to it. In International Trade BATNZ gives no indication of which sense of respect they want the public or businesses to apply to their brands, other than an abstract concept of harm following the introduction of standardised packaging. The undefined yet implied negative consequences encourage audiences to exaggerate the potential harm that could ensue from standardised packaging.
Australian Laws: an unsound argument
In the Australian Laws advertisement, BATNZ argued that Australia's ‘untested’ standardised packaging laws should not be adopted by NZ. This claim could mean that standardised packaging laws should not be adopted because they were untested, Australian, or both. However, the accompanying visual depiction of NZ as a small state subsumed within the larger country of Australia (a reference to traditional rivalry between NZ and Australia) strongly suggests the main argument is that standardised packaging laws should not be adopted because they are Australian. The argument may be set out thus:
Some Australian Law is not appropriate in NZ, so NZ should not adopt laws merely because they have already been enacted in Australia.
The only reason for NZ adopting standardised packaging laws would be that such laws already exist in Australia.
NZ should not adopt standardised packaging laws.
This argument is unsound as the second premise is false. NZ would not be adopting standardised packaging laws merely because such laws already exist in Australia. Rather, NZ would be adopting laws similar to those in Australia precisely because both countries face the same threat to public health and there is a large and robust evidence base suggesting that such legislation will achieve significant positive outcomes. Further, evidence from industry documents that on-pack branding is crucial to tobacco companies' marketing strategies also suggests removing brand imagery will reduce the effectiveness of those strategies. As a result, premise 2 is also clearly at odds with the weight of scientific evidence.
Personal Responsibility: a fallacy of equivocation
The Personal Responsibility advertisements stated: “We disagree with plain packaging because New Zealanders should be allowed to make their own informed decisions” and featured an image of a protester holding a placard saying: “If I disagree with something it should be banned”. This argument relies on a fallacy of equivocation because the term ‘informed decision’ is undefined and ambiguous. Given the hazardous and highly addictive nature of tobacco, the information required to make an informed decision would need to enable general or brand-specific comparisons between likely benefits and the relative harmfulness of smoking. The argument may thus be set out as follows:
Informed decisions about engaging in harmful activities are better than uninformed decisions.
Withholding information hampers informed decision-making about harmful activities.
We should not withhold branding information from smokers.
In the first two propositions, ‘information’ refers to information about potential harms and benefits; however, the final proposition uses a different definition and ‘information’ has a more specific meaning with respect to branding. Branding provides no information about the harmfulness or addictiveness of smoking in general or for specific brands. The question then becomes whether branding provides information about the potential benefits of the product?
Information about the manufacturer and specific attributes of cigarettes is communicated via text that could also be used on standardised packs. BATNZ's argument promotes tobacco companies' ‘rights’ to display evocative images and messages typical of brands such as ‘Holiday’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Horizon’, yet fails to recognise that these images and messages provide no information about the product itself. As a result, the information BATNZ seeks to protect has no material influence on rational evaluations of smoking's harms versus benefits. Indeed, on-pack branding arguably detracts from warning labels provided to communicate risk information to smokers. As a result, the argument is unsound because the first two propositions have no logical connection to the conclusion proposition.
What's Next? A fallacy of slippery slopes
The What's Next advertisement featured an image of a customer facing a liquor store fridge full of beer bottles with plain white labels accompanied by the written statement ‘I don't mind if alcohol is next’. The argument suggests standardised packaging would set a ‘troubling precedent’ that would then be applied to other legal products. Specifically, the advertisement uses a slippery slope argument; it implies that if all tobacco products were required to use standardised packaging, other products would inevitably become subjected to the same regulatory approach. We set out the argument thus
If the NZ government mandates the standardised packaging of tobacco products, it will almost inevitably mandate standardised packaging of alcohol (and other such products).
New Zealanders do not want mandatory standardised packaging of alcohol (or other such products).
The NZ government should not pass a law mandating the standardised packaging of tobacco products.
Since introducing standardised packaging for other products would require a separate consultation and regulatory process, and there is no evidence that regulators are contemplating such a process, premise 1 is false. Although tobacco companies have often adduced this argument in the past, the consequences they have predicted have not eventuated.16 The slippery slope argument as presented by BATNZ is a fallacy because there is no evidence that the proposed legislation will almost inevitably, or even probably, cause the suggested flow-on effects.
Framing of BATNZ in the Agree–Disagree campaign
All the campaign TVCs used the slogan “We agree that tobacco is harmful, we disagree with plain packaging because…” followed by a statement offering a specific reason for why standardised packaging should not proceed. The tobacco industry has frequently denied or disputed harms caused by smoking, thus their apparent candour suggests a reformed corporate citizen that now accepts the overwhelming medical evidence that smoking causes many serious illnesses. This approach is not a fallacy but is a rhetorical device with the apparent aim of framing BATNZ as ‘reasonable’ in order to add weight to the subsequent arguments they offer.
BATNZ's ‘Agree–Disagree’ campaign employed a high intensity advertising schedule that coincided with the NZ government's standardised packaging submission period. Even after applying the principle of charity and searching for the most robust interpretations, our analyses found the arguments presented were either unsound (because they were invalid or had false premises) or demonstrated well-known informal fallacies. While relying on false propositions, these fallacies were presented in a way that gave them a veneer of plausibility that audiences may find persuasive.
Despite the many resources available to support the passage of standardised packaging legislation,17 ,18 few systematically critique arguments repeatedly adduced by tobacco companies or provide suggestions for how they can be countered. This suggests a need for resources that can be used to inform rapid analysis and responses by tobacco control advocates. Drawing from our findings, we propose four strategies for organising action that could be included in a toolbox for countering industry messages opposing standardised packaging.
We found the BATNZ arguments were unsound or founded on informal logical fallacies that contained errors in their propositions (as opposed to formal fallacies that contain errors in the structure of an argument). Our first proposed strategy is directly refuting tobacco industry arguments, specifically by drawing on evidence and reason to highlight flaws in their propositions. For example, straw man arguments that misrepresent trademark rights could be challenged by explaining what standardised packaging will restrict, clarifying the entitlements trademarks provide and pointing out the government's lack of desire to use industry trademarks. Slippery slope arguments could be refuted by drawing attention to the experience of standardised packaging of tobacco in Australia which has not been applied to other products. Further, noting the failure of past tobacco industry slippery slope claims to eventuate would focus attention on the tobacco industry's poor record of predicting macroregulatory changes.16
A second strategy could anticipate and catalogue likely arguments the tobacco industry will employ and pre-emptively debunk them through counter evidence and reason. Claims made in Agree–Disagree such as standardised packaging breaching trade agreements or infringing on individual rights have appeared over many years, across a number of countries and in opposition to other proposals to regulate tobacco marketing (eg, advertising bans). For example, trade agreement and individual rights claims also appeared in a 1991 New Zealand Tobacco Institute brochure, ‘The Plain facts about Plain Packs’, as well as in tobacco industry campaigns opposing the Australian standardised packaging legislation. Known colloquially as ‘zombie’ arguments (killed, but rise again to live elsewhere) they illustrate how tobacco companies recycle arguments in multiple jurisdictions, even after they have been discredited. As these arguments are well documented in this paper and elsewhere,8 their inclusion in a toolbox would help health groups anticipate and formulate pre-emptive strategies designed to challenge industry claims.
Framing arguments in a way that is credible and meaningful is important for building support for health policies.19 Framing standardised packaging as addressing a significant health issue for the whole population supported by sound evidence will ensure that it is seen as credible in the eyes of the general public and policymakers. For example, standardised packaging aims to reduce smoking's appeal, particularly among young people. Campaigns could thus illustrate how the measure will protect youth and draw attention to tobacco companies' cynical marketing to adolescents. Given the lack of credibility of the tobacco industry, retaining a health focus will also prevent them from gaining a platform from which to expound their views and deflect attempts to draw attention away from the harm tobacco causes.
The fourth and final strategy would address attempts by the tobacco industry to frame itself in a positive light, in the case of Agree–Disagree through use of rhetorical devices to bolster its credibility and ‘reasonableness’. Drawing attention to historical use of rhetorical strategies would highlight tobacco companies' on-going role in causing premature death and disability and challenge their claim as a legitimate actor in civil society. These approaches would be consistent with wider denormalisation activities that expose tobacco companies' extensive history of self-interested and unethical behaviour.8
Our study has some limitations; we focused on paid advertising and did not analyse tobacco industry press releases or social media postings (eg, use of Twitter and Facebook) related to the Agree–Disagree campaign. Future research should review these media to examine how they are used to influence government regulation. We also did not examine how the public interpreted BATNZ's advertisements, and future research should investigate audience reactions to industry campaigns and examine which messages, if any, gain support.
BATNZ's Agree–Disagree campaign relied on unsound arguments, logical fallacies and rhetorical devices used previously to oppose policy measures. Yet despite the industry's frequent recourse to these arguments, public health and tobacco control advocates lack resources that systematically critique these arguments and offer strategies for how they can be countered. Our analyses will help support the many countries contemplating standardised packaging by focussing debate on the health benefits that the policy will deliver. More generally, our analyses will help pre-empt industry opposition to future policies and may also be relevant to related fields, such as those dealing with harms caused by alcohol and obesity. These industries have clearly learnt from tobacco companies' successful delay and avoidance strategies and have advanced claims that draw strongly on tobacco industry rhetoric.
Following consultations, the NZ Government announced it would defer a final decision on standardised packaging until the outcomes of cases taken against the Australian Government were known. In September 2016, the NZ Government passed standardised packaging legislation.
What this paper adds
The tobacco industry routinely opposes proportionate policy measures that aim to curb tobacco harm. In 2012, BATNZ launched the Agree–Disagree mass media campaign aimed at swaying public and political opinion against proposed standardised packaging legislation in New Zealand.
Existing studies have identified tactics and messages used by the tobacco industry to oppose policies aimed at restricting tobacco advertising and specifically standardised packaging. However, there has been little critical examination of the framing and soundness of arguments posited by the tobacco industry.
All the Agree–Disagree advertisements contained either unsound arguments or logical fallacies that can be effectively pre-empted or challenged.
Contributors AMW conceptualised the project, secured research funding and developed the initial MS drafts; JH and RE provided feedback on the grant application and MS drafts. JM independently reviewed and commented on the logical analyses; his detailed feedback informed a further draft, which JH prepared for initial submission to Tobacco Control. Following feedback from the reviewers, AMW compiled comments from JH, RE and JM and prepared a final draft. All authors provided feedback on MS drafts and approved the final version; authors are listed in descending order of contribution. AMW is guarantor of the manuscript. Analysis of AGB Nielsen PeopleMeter data was conducted by GSL Network and Ben Healey (University of Otago).
Funding This work was supported by the University of Otago, 2012 Research Grant Round.
Competing interests Although we do not consider it a competing interest, for the sake of full transparency we note that some of the authors have previously undertaken work for health sector agencies working in tobacco control.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.