09/29/2016 02:19 EDT | Updated 09/29/2016 02:19 EDT

Big Tobacco Insults Canadians With Its Latest PR Campaign

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cigarette butts on focus of macro in sand bin

This summer, the Canadian government conducted a three-month public consultation to review a potential law that would mandate plain-packaged cigarettes. The law would effectively ban corporate branding on cigarette packages.

Now, the government appears poised to move ahead with the proposed law. Just as inevitably, Big Tobacco has begun to litter our newspapers, magazines and various electronic screens with print, online and video advertisements attacking the legislation.

Their advertising campaign's accompanying website is a truly Orwellian dreamscape. The kinds of charlatans with the intellectual wit to construct such deceivingly genius rhetoric are increasingly too ethical in today's world for the work they do. At least that was Thank You for Smoking's didactic lesson. Alas, Big Tobacco is attempting to convince me that I was deceived by Hollywood...again.

The website, entitled Both Sides of the Argument and created by the tobacco company JTI-Macdonald Corp., is a testament to the powers of market research. It's no secret that people are statistically less likely to smoke the more educated they are, so seizing upon such basic demographic information serves stakeholders well in any tobacco debate.

Heck, as far back as twenty years ago, Statistics Canada published a report suggesting the government craft smoking-cessation marketing strategies specifically tailored to those with a "lower educational attainment."

One can easily guess that the major tobacco companies heeded such advice but for their own pro-smoking agendas.

The Both Sides of the Argument website appeals to an oversimplified libertarian sense of freedom and the implication that the government thinks you're dumb. Don't stand for it, Big Tobacco says--we won't trivialize you. Though I'm fairly confident that's what the wolf said in his sheep costume.

For instance, the website boasts a whole page called "The Importance of Critical Thinking," featuring quotes from one Dr. Roy van den Brink-Budgen outlining the different skill-sets of critical thinking. There's also a Critical Thinking Test to see if your abilities in inference, deduction, assumptions, and arguments are up to the standards of Canada's tobacco companies.

Testimonials from concerned citizens quickly complement this strategy that plays to our emotions. I'm told right away that "hard-working Canadians like Tim [...] are critical thinkers, people who like to make sure they understand all aspects of an argument, and the evidence that backs up the claims, before they form their own opinion."

Surely I work as hard as Tim! So I sought to understand all aspects of JTI-Macdonald Corp.'s arguments and their underlying evidence before forming my own opinion.

Curiously, there is little to no mention about the affect of product branding on young, would-be smokers. I'm going to deduce that JTI-Macdonald Corp. is well aware of peer-reviewed research about the dangers of product branding for cigarettes.

Instead, JTI-Macdonald Corp. attempts a different approach--bombarding their website visitors with meaningless stats about public awareness to conclude that if most people weren't informed about the Canadian government's consultation on plain-packaged cigarettes, it must therefore be undemocratic.

However, that's not really how our democracy functions. I don't know half of what goes on in Ottawa, but that doesn't make things unfair. It makes me lazy, maybe, but that's as scientific as you can get.

JTI-Macdonald Corp. bolsters their argument by asserting that the government was irresponsible to conduct the consultation without having first conducted a cost-benefit analysis. Maybe my critical-thinking skills aren't as sharp as Tim's after all, because the footnote for this allegation is a link to the government's "tender" (i.e., an RFP) for an independent contractor to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on plain-packaged cigarettes, dated a full two months before the consultation was announced. Am I missing something?

A second argument stipulates that plain packaging would increase the risk of counterfeit cigarettes and smuggling, potentially costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The citation for this claim is an audit conducted by the research firm KPMG. Its fine print says that cigarette companies commissioned the audit, so my critical-thinking skills compelled me to dig deeper; sure enough, the British Medical Journal refutes the smuggling fearmongering.

And what of the fact that cigarette sales marginally increased in the year after Australia mandated plain-packaged cigarettes? Is that the whole story? I want to make sure I "understand all aspects of an argument [...] to form [my] own opinion."

Sure enough, by the own admission of the evidence presented by JTI-Macdonald Corp., the lack of corporate branding likely helped to wean pre-existing smokers off of premium brands, thus freeing them up to afford a higher quantity of cheaper cigarettes.

This is not the same thing as saying, for example, that plain-packaged cigarettes increase the rate of youth smokers. JTI-Macdonald Corp. insists that 17,000 new teenage smokers took up the habit daily in the year after the law was introduced, and that this statistic is from the Australian government's own data.

Ignoring that this is an absolute and not a relative fact, therefore really telling us nothing at all, for the life of me I couldn't find that information in any Australian-government publication. But for what it's worth, this Australian-government website is ripe with data about recent downward trends in teen-smoking rates.

The logical conclusion I have deduced, Big Tobacco, is that you are insulting the intelligence of Canadians with your sleazy website and its Critical Thinking Test.

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