Background: Standardised packaging (SP) of tobacco products is an innovative tobacco control measure opposed by transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) whose responses to the UK government's public consultation on SP argued that evidence was inadequate to support implementing the measure. The government's initial decision, announced 11 months after the consultation closed, was to wait for 'more evidence', but four months later a second 'independent review' was launched. In view of the centrality of evidence to debates over SP and TTCs' history of denying harms and manufacturing uncertainty about scientific evidence, we analysed their submissions to examine how they used evidence to oppose SP.
Methods and findings: We purposively selected and analysed two TTC submissions using a verification-oriented cross-documentary method to ascertain how published studies were used and interpretive analysis with a constructivist grounded theory approach to examine the conceptual significance of TTC critiques. The companies' overall argument was that the SP evidence base was seriously flawed and did not warrant the introduction of SP. However, this argument was underpinned by three complementary techniques that misrepresented the evidence base. First, published studies were repeatedly misquoted, distorting the main messages. Second, 'mimicked scientific critique' was used to undermine evidence; this form of critique insisted on methodological perfection, rejected methodological pluralism, adopted a litigation (not scientific) model, and was not rigorous. Third, TTCs engaged in 'evidential landscaping', promoting a parallel evidence base to deflect attention from SP and excluding company-held evidence relevant to SP. The study's sample was limited to sub-sections of two out of four submissions, but leaked industry documents suggest at least one other company used a similar approach.
Conclusions: The TTCs' claim that SP will not lead to public health benefits is largely without foundation. The tools of Better Regulation, particularly stakeholder consultation, provide an opportunity for highly resourced corporations to slow, weaken, or prevent public health policies.