2.6 Comparisons of quality and results using various estimates of tobacco consumption in Australia

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Each of the alternative sources of data used to estimate tobacco consumption–production and trade data, tax receipts, sales data, self-reported use of cigarettes and self-reported expenditure on tobacco products–has advantages and disadvantages. And readers will have noted that each provides different estimates of total and per capita consumption.

2.6.1 Limitations of data

While quantifying the number of cigarettes produced in Australian factories or levied for duty prior to sale may seem like a straightforward, highly objective process, it must be remembered that data on manufacturing and duties is generated by individuals interpreting and reporting on data entered into electronic databases by other individuals. There is still room for error and inconsistency over time and between individuals in the way that products are coded and the ways that quantities are recorded and aggregated.

One can be reasonably confident about the accuracy of data provided by Australian tobacco companies to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which is covered by an act of law1 requiring companies to comply with official requests. International research agencies compiling data on numbers of cigarettes produced or sold by contrast have no such legal sway over respondents, and no legislative requirement to disclose and correct errors if these emerge.

Production and trade data may be lower or higher from year to year not because retail sales have decreased, but rather because of changes in timing of production schedules, importing and exporting opportunities and warehousing practices. Some commentators suspect that tobacco companies may even alter production schedules to reduce or increase apparent production over particular periods to attempt to persuade governments that certain tobacco-control initiatives are ineffective.2

Data on weight of tobacco products manufactured or excised over the years provide only a rough estimate of the numbers of cigarettes consumed, given that cigarettes weights have declined over time, with little information available about the average weight in each year. Estimates of cigarette imports to and exports from Australia based on weight may somewhat underestimate the actual numbers of cigarettes being imported and exported if these are based on international rather than Australian averages of cigarette weight.

It is important to remember that the quantities of tobacco products on which duties are levied and the quantities of tobacco products sold by licensed tobacco companies and wholesalers underestimate consumption to the extent that they miss illicit tobacco and contraband cigarettes.

Self-reports of amounts of tobacco consumed are notoriously unreliable. Questions concerning daily (or weekly or monthly) consumption by smokers in Australia have generally asked smokers for global estimates of smoking in recent periods of time; however it is known that global retrospective reports generate significantly lower estimates than do reports generated when people are required to keep electronic or paper-based diaries.3,4 Some of the disparity between the figures based on official records and self-report data may also be accounted for by stock that is past the use-by date or damaged and returned not sold. The estimate of total annual consumption built up from self-report data included in Table 2.2.6 (see Section 2.2) does not take into account cigarettes smoked by children under 14 years of age. On the other hand, estimates of tobacco sales and consumption based on excise and customs receipts do not include products on which such duties have been evaded. It is clear that smokers must significantly underestimate the amount they smoke each day. There is no evidence, however, that the tendency or extent of under-reporting has changed over recent times.

Industry sales data found periodically on the websites of tobacco companies or published in trade magazines should also be interpreted with caution. Methods of collecting the data and sources are often not reported. Sometimes such data are based on raw figures; sometimes they represent 12-month running averages. Often the basis for estimates is not reported. For instance, researchers rarely explain how they estimate cigarette numbers from data based on weight and vice versa. Not infrequently, figures are revised without explanation, and without corresponding revision of historical figures included in data tables.

Table 2.6.1 attempts to compare and contrast the various limitations associated with each source of data relevant for estimating tobacco consumption in Australia.

Table 2.6.1
Overview of limitations of various data sources used to estimate tobacco consumption

 

Completeness of data

Relevance to actual consumption by consumer

Consistency of collection methods

Frequency of data collection

Legal requirement to provide complete and correct information; subject to external independent audit?

Estimated or directly measured?

Includes consumption of illicit stock?

Availability over time

Production figures compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics

Very high

Low

High

Has been frequent

Yes

Direct

Not all of it

Stops at 1994

Production figures compiled by private-sector research agencies

Not known

Moderate

Unknown

Annual

Yes for data provided to regulators and investors

Direct

Not all of it

Need to subscribe or purchase

Excise and customs data

Complete

High

High

Has been frequent, but no longer easily accessible

Yes

Direct

No

Excise data available only 10 months after end of financial year and in highly aggregated form

Self-report data

Samples only; excludes consumption estimates for people using products other than cigarettes

Very high

High in Australia

Three yearly (annual nationally and in some states to evaluate National Tobacco Campaign and other campaigns)

No – subject to under-reporting

Direct

Yes

1983 to 1998 based on weekly no of packs; 2001 to 2010 for daily, weekly or monthly

Private final consumption

Complete

Moderate

High

Quarterly

n/a

Estimated

No

1960 to current

Household spending figures based on expenditure surveys

Samples only

Consumption by households rather than individuals

High

Only every six years

No

Direct

Yes

1984 to 2009

Sales figures compiled by industry research bodies

Unknown

Very high

Unknown

Annual, but outside industry, usually able to be purchased only several years later

Yes for data provided to regulators and investors

Mixture of direct and estimated

Estimates only

Euromonitor data from 1998 to 2011

Frustration about lack of reliable data on tobacco consumption has led researchers and policy experts to call for the government to require tobacco companies to report on sales using their own records of stock supplied to and returned from wholesalers and retailers.5, 6 Companies could be required to report quarterly and annually on sales of various categories of tobacco products on a regional, state and national basis. In this way health authorities could judge the relative success of tobacco-control strategies in each jurisdiction. Such reporting of sales is required under the Smokefree Environments Act 2000 in New Zealand7 and the Tobacco Reporting Regulations in Canada.8

All the limitations described above warn against unqualified acceptance of any one figure as a definitive estimate of consumption in Australia. Interpreting changes over time and comparisons between countries is especially fraught.

2.6.2 Consistency of changes in various datasets

Figure 2.6.1 sets out per capita estimates based on all the various sources of data that provide insights into tobacco consumption in Australia

 

Figure 2.6.1

Figure 2.6.1
Per capita consumption of tobacco products in Australia 1970 to 2010 estimated according to a variety of methods

Sources: Guindon and Bosclair 2003,2 Scollo 2012,9 ABS 201110,11 and Euromonitor International 201112

Note: ABS household expenditure data adjusted for tobacco prices. 13 All data divided by ABS 2010 estimates of resident population, Australia ages 15 and over ABS 201014

Although the various estimates of consumption are calculated from very different data sources, the overall trends–the steepness of decline in particular periods–are surprisingly similar.

While we might not be able to say exactly what current tobacco consumption actually is at present in Australia, from the similarity of the pattern of reductions in all the data sources, we can be certain that it has been reducing.

Figure 2.6.2 plots per capita consumption against smoking prevalence between 1980 and 2010.

 

Figure 2.6.2

Figure 2.6.2
Estimates of per capita consumption of tobacco products in Australia based on excise and customs and receipts versus estimates of smoking prevalence

Sources: ABS 2010;14 Hill and Gray 1982;15 Hill and Gray 1984;16 Hill 1988;17 Hill, White and Gray 1988;18 Hill, White and Gray 1991;19 Hill, White and Scollo 1998;20 White, Hill et al 2003;21 and AIHW 2002,22 2005,23 200824 and 201125

Notes: Excise and customs receipts (see large number of sources for Table 2.2.1) divided by population 15 years and over14 and prevalence figures from CBRC re-analysis of data from surveys conducted by the Anti-Cancer Council Victoria between 1980 and 199815–21 and the National Drug Strategy Household Survey from 2001 to 201022–25

Trends in our best estimates of per capita consumption of tobacco products seemed to closely mirror trends in population smoking prevalence until 1991. Between 1991 and 2004 (a period of rapid adoption of smokefree policies) consumption appears to have fallen more steeply than prevalence. This is consistent with reviews that demonstrate a reduction in cigarettes per day among smokers who are subjected to workplace smoke-free laws26–29 Since 2004, consumption and prevalence appear once again to be falling in parallel.

References

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