The doctors are on the rampage again


We've a letter in the BMJ signed by some thousands of doctors over plain packaging of cigarettes:

The government is heading for an explosive new year showdown with doctors who fear it is in danger of giving cigarette companies a late Christmas present by pulling out of a major anti-tobacco initiative.

Nearly 4,000 health professionals, including the presidents of many of the leading royal colleges, have signed an open letter to the prime minister and the health secretary, published on Sunday on the British Medical Journal website, expressing alarm that plans to force cigarette manufacturers to sell their products in plain packs may not be introduced before the general election, as had been expected.

The number of doctors signing the letter – 3,728 – is five times greater than the number who recently signed an open letter supporting a ban on smoking in cars, a health initiative the government has confirmed it will introduce. The thousands of signatories underscore the strength of feeling about the issue within the medical community.

We've indicated here before our suspicion of the emergency with which this particular question is being addressed. The government says that it must follow EU rules about consultation, the doctors are saying damn that and do it now. But why now? Our suspicion is that they want it enacted into law before the evidence that it doesn't actually work becomes more widely appreciated:

Australian Bureau of Statistics' data show that there has been a secular decline in the chain volume of tobacco sales since the 1970s, but this began to go into reverse in the first year of plain packaging (see graph below). In three out four quarters in 2013, sales were higher than they had been in the last quarter before plain packaging was implemented. This unusual rise in tobacco sales only came to end in December 2013 when a large tax rise on tobacco (of 12.5 per cent) was implemented, thereby leading to a fall in the following quarter.

Screaming that we've a major problem that requires action is sometimes valid. Whether you think that plain packaging is such is up to you. But it does boggle the mind that so much effort is being given to the implementation of a policy that doesn't actually achieve its predicted result. It's rather like the similar public health campaign for minimum alcohol prices. They seem to have got the bit between their teeth and thus be completely incapable of seeing that they're proposing something that is just a terribly stupid way to try and achieve that stated goal.

What really worries here is that we're really quite sure that you've got to be reasonably bright to train as a doctor. So why is it that when it comes to these public health campaigns they all seem to have left their brains at home?