The professor who exposed the Australian government for fixing claims on plain packaging’s success has said the legislation will fail in the UK and bring in a wave of illegal trade.

Sinclair Davidson, professor of Institutional Economics at Australia’s RMIT University, discovered that government data had been manipulated after submitting a Freedom of Information request into a review on plain packs.

When Davidson conducted an analysis, he found the reported downturn in smoking was the result of deliberate data exclusions.

“The data was manipulated to give the false impression that the policy has succeeded,” he said.

“If a country’s objective is to damage legal business and subsidise criminal behaviour, it should go ahead with plain packaging”
Sinclair Davidson, RMIT University

“The Australian government has failed to produce any evidence that smoking rates have declined beyond the long-term trend. It’s fair to conclude that plain packaging has failed.”

Davidson is calling on overseas governments to ditch the regulation. “Governments are pursuing a policy that encourages criminality at the expense of legal and well-regulated business,” he said. “If a country’s objective is to damage legal business and subsidise criminal behaviour, it should go ahead.”

Australian retailers reported that high prices – not plain packs – were deterring smokers. The same pattern has been noticed in the UK.

“Plain packs sell – high prices are the problem,” said John McKeon, who owns Conezone in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.

Mandeep Singh, of Premier Singhs in Sheffield, said the loss of price-marked packs was a concern. “People are moving to cheaper brands,” he said.

He added that plain packs would make sales time-consuming, pushing people towards the “flooded” black market.

“When everything goes plain, we might boost margins by putting prices up,” he said. “Charging 20p extra could cover sales lost to the illicit trade.”

John Abbott, owner of Milbank News in Darlington, County Durham, agreed that plain packaging would fuel the illicit trade.

“People see illegal tobacco as a bargain,” he said. “Plain packaging is only making things worse.”

Jeff Rogut, chief executive of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores, confirmed that plain packaging has had no effect on consumption in Australia.

“Price has emerged as the clear sales driver, as there’s no branding to distinguish products,” he said. “Sales of cheaper tobacco products have grown substantially, while sales of premium products have declined.”

At the same time, he said the illegal trade in Australia had “flourished at unprecedented levels”.