Stephen Williams MP writes: How to damage tobacco brands

The Australian Senate has just passed landmark legislation in the long fight to prevent young people from starting smoking. From next July, all cigarette packs sold in Australia will look the same: a murky green box with big health warnings and the brand name in a standard font. The tobacco industry desperately fought the plans with millions spent on adverts, dubious research, front groups and legal action. But despite their unprecedented campaign, the idea is widely supported by the public and was passed unanimously in the Australian House of Representatives.

Now it’s our turn. The Coalition Government understands the need for action in England. Open displays of tobacco in shops that make smoking seem like a normal part of everyday life are set to go from next April. In the spring we will also consult on plain packaging – and it could be one of the big political stories of next year. Tobacco companies like BAT and Imperial will hate this and there will probably be one hell of a row.

Decades of world-class research shows that marketing is one of the major factors pulling children into smoking and it’s clear that the pack is just another marketing tool. Big Tobacco knows this, although they don’t often like to admit it: industry documents released as part of legal action in the US show the importance they place on pack design. Packs are designed to be attractive and communicate the ‘personality’ of a cigarette brand. We all know which tobacco brands try to look rugged and manly, or stylish and feminine, and pack design is bound up in this myth-making. Especially for young people, cigarette packs act as ‘badge products’ which form an important part of the identity the user wants to project, just like phones or trainers. Unsurprisingly, given the relationship teens have with tobacco brands, research shows that plain packs are less attractive to young people.

Making cigarette packs less attractive matters because eight out of ten smokers start before the age of 19 and addiction keeps them smoking into adulthood with terrible costs. We cannot ignore the fact that smoking remains the biggest single cause of ill health and premature death, killing 100,000 people a year in the UK. And it’s the poorest who suffer the most – tobacco is responsible for half of the difference in life expectancy between those at the top and those at the bottom.

Whenever the tobacco industry’s marketing is challenged, it trots out the same old lines. They say there will be more smuggling but counterfeiters will not find the new packs any easier to forge when there are large picture warnings. They say small shops lose out because plain packs are harder for shop assistants to pick out. When researchers tested this, they found that it was actually quicker to serve customers if there were plain packs in alphabetical order.

Adults who want to smoke will still be able to buy cigarettes but plain packs protect young people from the marketing of a highly addictive and seriously harmful product by ruthless international companies. The Australians have taken a great step forward. I look forward to the day when I too will get the chance to vote to protect British teenagers from tobacco marketing.

Stephen Williams is the Lib Dem MP for Bristol West and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health.

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54 Comments

  • Shameful from a so-called liberal politician. What next, stopping open display of alcohol, fizzy drinks, fatty foods? Anyone still smoking nowadays despite health warnings and demonisation does it out of choice, a choice that has nothing to do with the state.

  • James Blanchard 15th Nov '11 - 6:22pm

    We all know that smoking tobacco is bad for us and those around us. However, under these proposals it will be even easier for the criminal gangs who sell untaxed tobacco masqurading as genuine brands. These cigarettes are often more dangerous to smokers and those around them, put nothing in to government coffers, and the profits end up funding further criminal activity. Your article touches on this as being one of the reasons tobacco companies are against it, but suggest no reason for them to be wrong.

    Put simply, I would much rather tax-paying companies employing tax-paying workers sell cigarettes than non-taxpaying criminal gangs. Your proposals will make this less likely.

  • Daniel Henry 15th Nov '11 - 6:25pm

    Calm down Z, people will still have the choice of whether to smoke or not, their products will just have a dull presentation, that’s all.

    Do you really consider it a clamping down on your liberties that your won’t be able to get ciggies in pretty packages anymore?

  • It is the addictive nature of cigarettes that makes it acceptable for liberals to clamp down on sales in this way. Since young people rarely buy 200 cigarettes initially, another policy would be increase the minimum pack size to 200. (If this is illegal under EU laws on cross border trade, we could achieve it de facto by stating that the duty is £32 per pack of 200 or fewer, rather than the current pro-rata rate), plus 16.5% of the retail price. The prices would then be £40 for a pack of 20, or £70-ish for 200. Regular smokers would be unaffected, but new smokers wanted to try it out would be put off.

  • Simon McGrath 15th Nov '11 - 8:04pm

    Is there any actual evidence you can refer us to that duller packs will mean less smoking?

    I am not at all sure that your argument “Tobacco companies like BAT and Imperial will hate this and there will probably be one hell of a row.” is correct. From their perspective it has the huge advantage that it will set in stone their different market shares and make it impossible for anyone else to compete with them.

  • @Simon McGrath there’s a substantial amount of evidence on the effect different packaging has on purchasing
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=tobacco%20packaging

    Just out of interest, why are the freedoms of commercial entities considered sacrosanct by some liberals? Surely liberalism as a philosophy applies to individuals, not companies?

  • “Do you really consider it a clamping down on your liberties that your won’t be able to get ciggies in pretty packages anymore?”

    I consider it a gross and patronising insult to peoples’ intelligence. What is it with you people and your irresistible urge to meddle? There appears to be a pathological inability to leave people alone to live their lives how they choose.

  • “Open displays of tobacco in shops that make smoking seem like a normal part of everyday life…”

    Well that will be because it is! I’m not a Mark Littlewood/FOREST type fundie but stuff like that could drive me that way!

  • Simon Titley 16th Nov '11 - 2:21am

    I’m afraid Stephen Williams’s proposal fits in the category of “something must be done”, i.e. a gesture intended to make politicians look active while not actually costing governments anything or necessarily addressing the problem.

    The main reason why young people start smoking is peer group pressure. Branding is not the cause.

    In marketing terms, tobacco is a ‘mature product’, rather like washing powder or petrol. Marketing of such products is intended to get customers to switch brands rather than use the product more.

    An analogy of banning tobacco branding would be deciding to tackle climate change by banning the branding of petrol. But the marketing of petrol does not encourage people either to take up driving or to drive further, and does not have that effect. Instead, it is designed to encourage people to buy, say, Esso rather than BP.

    If we want to discourage young people from starting to smoke, we need to tackle the phenomenon of peer group pressure. But youth culture is notoriously difficult for authority figures to influence, hence the resort by politicians to futile gestures.

    As far as older people are concerned, if they want to waste their money and risk their health, that’s their look out.

  • Simon McGrath 16th Nov '11 - 5:29am

    @G “@Simon McGrath there’s a substantial amount of evidence on the effect different packaging has on purchasing
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=tobacco%20packaging

    Just out of interest, why are the freedoms of commercial entities considered sacrosanct by some liberals? Surely liberalism as a philosophy applies to individuals, not companies?”

    Thanks. surely there is a simple way of deciding this – review the effects of plain packaging in Australia and see if in fact it has the effect claimed for it.

    Not sure i follow your second point. who is saying they are sacrosanct?

  • Simon McGrath 16th Nov '11 - 5:31am

    Simon Titley puts it very well “As far as older people are concerned, if they want to waste their money and risk their health, that’s their look out.”

  • @Simon McGrath, the research on packaging in Australia will no doubt be done. However, this isn’t the only strategy that could be used, further restrictions on advertising or changes on the placement of cigarettes in shops have been shown to reduce consumption and uptake. Hardly ‘futile’ changes as Simon Titley suggests.

    And on the health argument, as we have a health service funded out of taxation the costs of smoking are a significant concern for society. One way to justify the ‘it’s their health, they can do what they like’ argument would be to have a wholly private health service or to restrict healthcare to smokers for smoking related problems. Neither of which, I hope, are options considered seriously by Liberal Democrats?

  • Do I take it that the comment “…if they waste their money and risk their health, that’s there look out” implies that by being a smoker you have opted out of the National Health Service. Or is there an assumption that the state will still pay for your personally-induced medical condition.

    What is proposed could reduce your chance of starting a dangerous addiction, which could be beneficial to both the individual’s health and to other tax payers who have to contribute to the necessary medical bills.

  • Stephen’s idea is interesting but sounds like a drop in the ocean. There are also lots of pragmatic issues to consider.

    The tax take on tobacco far outweighs the NHS spend on smoking related illnesses; even if you took into account the widest consideration of negative implications for economic productivity and so on, the fact that people smoke is probably still a benefit as far as the public finances are concerned. This is probably the main reason Governments have not banned it.

    The reduction in smoking in recent years probably has nothing to do with these small scale interventions by Government. As Simon Titley points out, reducing the impact of advertising just reduces the scope for shifting between brands. Apart from growing social stigma, the financial impact will have some effect so it’s arguable that a more intelligent tax regime as Tim Leunig suggests would be far better than Stephen’s idea. The overall price of cigarettes has risen by around 60% in the last ten years-the average wage by around 10-15%.

    Reduced uptake amongst teenagers is far more likely to happen if we tackle the underlying problems of social deprivation rather than trying to tweak advertising policies which only tackle the symptoms and make us come across as the party of the nanny state.

  • geoffrey payne 16th Nov '11 - 10:58am

    @Simon Titley – I have no doubt there is more than one reason why someone decides to take up smoking, and I certainly agree that peer group pressure is one of those. But it is wrong to identify a single “main reason” and ignore tackling the other reasons as well.
    We will know in time whether the Australian approach will work or not, but why not get started now given that this is an addiction that kills people?

  • James Dunmore 16th Nov '11 - 11:49am

    This is terrible -stupid idea – I don’t know one person who smokes because the packaging looks good.

    I don’t buy X brand of beer because I like the colour blue/green/yellow, etc. I don’t select a sandwich because they put pretty colours on the packet.

    @g the evidence says packaging influences brand choice – not yes or no to smoking.

    Wars have been fought to give people freedom of choice and not be dictated to by a governing body – the US have invaded countries over not having choice – if people want to smoke, let them. Yes – educate them, but don’t go crazy.

  • @Tom Smith, tax on tobacco isn’t hypothecated for the health service. Your argument only applies if it is. Also, why is it ‘nanny state’ to tweak the activities of commercial companies? This isn’t the state telling individuals what to do.

    @Rich The difference between food and tobacco is considerable. Tobacco is highly addictive, food is not. Tobacco is not essential for life, food is. Does a smoker have free will, or does their addiction override this? Who is talking about banning?

  • Never been a smoker and never want to be but if the party got behind this kind of policy I’d be right out the door. Wasn’t the “Liberal” in the party name enough of a clue?

    If we implemented this I suspect there’d be a rapid boom in the market for designer cigarette cases. In any case, when I was at school, all the kids had little tins with papers and loose tobacco. I don’t remember design coming into it.

    Finally, as a design fan – the idea of a product being deliberately designed to be unattractive is pretty grating. I pity the poor designer employed to take on that challenge…

  • @Ed

    Never been a smoker and never want to be but if the party got behind this kind of policy I’d be right out the door. Wasn’t the “Liberal” in the party name enough of a clue?

    I’ll repeat my question from earlier…

    “Just out of interest, why are the freedoms of commercial entities considered sacrosanct by some liberals? Surely liberalism as a philosophy applies to individuals, not companies?”

  • @g

    What’s the difference between the freedoms of a commercial “entity” and the individual freedoms of the people that make up that business? It’s individuals that make the decisions as to how to develop and trade products and they would have their liberty restricted by the implementation of this policy. Not to mention the fact that a business’s customers are all individuals similarly restricted by such a policy.

    Even so, I’d be more offended by these measures as a smoker than as a tobacco seller. The latter already know that they’re selling a product that’s being criminalised by degree. The former are essentially being told that, in addition to being unable to make correct decisions because of physical dependence, the state thinks they are in a state of “diminished responsibility” because of a snazzy typeface and colour palette.

  • @Ed, commercial companies act in the interests of their shareholders, not in the interests of most of those who work for them.

    And changes to point of sales and advertising have demonstrable effects on smoking, why shouldn’t the state seek to reduce smoking? It has to pay for the costs, not the companies.

    Of course a solution which might appeal to you would be for tobacco companies to pick up the costs of smoking in return for no advertising restrictions?

  • “I would not ban the sale of cigarettes but I certainly want to do everything short of that to reduce the harm that they cause.”

    Everything? Why not say that cigarettes can only be bought by people in the nude then – that would probably reduce sales!

  • Mr. Williams.

    What do you make of the fact that more pubs closed in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 than have closed in any year previously? Eight pubs closed a week on average in 2003, 2004 and 2005. In 2007, it was 27 per week, in 2008, it was 38 per week, in 2009 it was 26 per week and in 2010 it was 28 per week.

    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AonYZs4MzlZbdHF6VkdvTjFzbVBpenRNcC1tcDBja2c&hl=en#gid=0

    You can damage businesses in all sorts of ways that they then have to ‘adapt’ to. That doesn’t mean that it is the fault of the business for failing to change.

    Good to hear you’re in favour of expensive alcohol for the poor too, any other particularly regressive ‘nudges’ you’re keen on seeing the party implement?

  • @g

    Companies don’t act – people do. Yes, I’m sure that the priorities of company shareholders are a factor in the decisions made by people who work for that company. I’m not sure how that justifies imposing legal restrictions on the way a company packages the product they produce. At the very least, it means their entire design department get sacked – is that in the interest of employees?

    And yes, I would be interested in a system where tobacco and alcohol companies contributed directly to medical groups to cover treatment costs.

  • @Angela Harbutt

    The millions of smokers in this country have rights – inlcuding the right to have a legitimate relationship with a legal company. What right has any government to interfer with that?

    A democratic mandate? But this isn’t the case anyway, restrictions on the advertising of tobacco do not affect the rights of smokers.

    @Ed companies are very distinct legal entities from individuals, they are not comparable. But since you are in favour of companies contributing to the costs of their products, would you support hypothecated taxes on tobacco, alcohol and certain foods to pay for the associated costs to the NHS? A fat tax for example?

  • g – I wasn’t comparing companies with individuals, I was pointing out that individuals take decisions and act within companies and that banning elements of product design affects the freedom of individuals to work for or trade with a company.

    This whole article (assuming the author chose the title rather than LDV) is discussing how to “damage brands” rather than how to protect smokers, which has a pretty unsavoury air of gleeful authoritarianism.

  • Simon Rigelsford 16th Nov '11 - 6:43pm

    So Stephen Williams MP argues:
    – smoking is more likely to lead to disease and early death than not smoking
    – banning the “promotion” of cigarettes will reduce smoking, and so reduce its associated problems
    – therefore, while people should still be free to smoke, we should ban the promotion of cigarettes

    I was talking to a BNP member the other day. He argued:
    – homosexual sex is more likely to lead to disease and early death than heterosexual sex
    – banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in the media will mean that more people will ‘stay in the closet’ or not experiment with their sexuality
    – so while people should still be free to do what they want in their own bedrooms, we should ban the promotion of homosexuality

    Hmm… given the similar way each draw their conclusions, one could conclude that the only difference between the fake “liberals” and extreme social conservatives is that they each want to persecute different minorities…

  • Adam Corlett 16th Nov '11 - 6:48pm

    I for one fully support you, Stephen (and on smoking in cars with children too, but not a blanket ban unless there is very compelling evidence re. third-hand smoke).

    There is more evidence for plain packaging than people seem to be suggesting. e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/12/ben-goldacre-bad-science-cigarette-packaging

    I hope none of those commenters who seem outraged and see restrictions on packaging as too illiberal aren’t so inconsistent as to think current policies for illicit drugs are fine. Prohibiting an entire trade while also giving users prison time and/or criminal records seems unjustifiable in comparison to this packaging proposal.

  • Jon Campbell 16th Nov '11 - 7:09pm

    I suggest you resign the whip, and join the labour party, you clearly are in no way liberal.

  • This is really indicative of the problem with our party. It was a so called liberal member of the Lord’s who introduced the Draconian measures into the DEAct, for instance. I am thinking if the pirate party launches in the UK, I am out of here. This party is stuck in the 20th Century. I don’t want a nanny state to tell people they are not allowed to smoke in their own cars. I don’t want a nanny state telling me how to use technology.

    Save the children? What are “liberals” going to suggest next: forced sterilisation of people with criminal convictions? (pre-emptive child protection). Disgusting.

  • While it is doubtful that plain packaging will make a really big difference to the number of people misusing tobacco, there is clear evidence that it will make some difference, so I think we should do it. It will also have the welcome effect of removing the offensive sight of these poisonous products from our shops (immeasurably more offensive than naked women, I should add). I take the rule of thumb in these matters to be: if the tobacco industry is against it, then it must be the right thing to do.

    I would not ban tobacco misuse outright. I think that would be going to far. If misusers partake of their addiction in private and in the presence of consenting adults, then I have no objection to their poisoning themselves with nicotine, heroin, cocaine, bleach, paraquat, or whatever. I would therefore prohibit it in all public places and in the presence of children. Is this illiberal? Of course not! What could be more liberal and liberating than enabling the mass of people to use public spaces without fear of smelling and breathing toxic cigarette effluent?

    The most effective weapon against tobacco misuse are societal pressure. Prohibiting smoking in caffs, restaurants and pubs was a great step forward in this regard, because it destroyed the image of smoking as a normal social activity. Sometimes, we have the be cruel to be kind, and I am sorry to have to say it, but the more dirty looks a tobacco misuser gets in the street, the more likely he/she will be to quit.

  • @Tom Papworth thanks, look interesting. For now I’ll stay, don’t worry, I have a lot of confidence in Nick Clegg and I am heartened by some of the other comments on here, and by blogs such as Liberal Vision. But it does annoy me when Lib Dems are just as statist as the Labservatives. Or when Lib Dems on Newsnight support the gagging of poppy-burners. Or…

    I just feel that we could so easily be the party of progress and openness and intelligence and liberty and technology and science and internationalism – pro EU and pro immigration. Anti corporatist but pro-market. I am sure there are enough like-minded, educated, intelligent people who would vote for more of that! Despite some of the statist populism emanating from some among us (see this article as an example) we are not really doing well in the polls…

    Time for a truly liberal approach?

  • geoffrey payne 17th Nov '11 - 1:03pm

    @Simon McGrath; You charactise my arguement as “In other words, “something must be done, this is something, therefore we should do it”.
    But actually things have been done in the past, and the lack of a libertarian campaign against undoing these things demonstrates that they have been successful. No one is seriously proposing removing government warning from cigarette packs for example. And nor has that intervention removed anyone’s freedom to smoke if they want to do so. The only freedom that has been impinged has been the ability of cigarette companies to promote their products the way they want. And of course they would not dream of putting on their packets the health implications of cigarette smoking. They would prefer you not to think about it so they can sell more cigarettes and make larger profits.
    However as Tim Leunig alludes to, if you are addicted to something, then the addiction takes away your freedom to choose rationally how you behave. If governments can intervene to help give people that choice, you end up with more freedom for the individual, not less.
    The amount of freedom you have in your life is not solely determined by the state alone.

  • Oh, do come on, Angela.

    Your comparison of fatty foods and tobacco is a poor one. Why?

    (1) There is virtual scientific unanimity that tobacco misuse kills around 80,000 people per year in the UK, is highly addictive, and causes some harm, however grievous or slight, to almost everyone who indulges in it. The same is not remotely true at present of fatty foods, though it might become so at some point in the future. And if it does, then obviously the state will need to do something about it.

    (2) The whole town where I live can be hooked on fatty foods and I can walk up the high street without having potato crisps and Kentucky Fried Chicken shoved in my face. The same is not true of tobacco. My walk to the station is an obstacle course. How many times do I have to cross the street? I lose count. Oh, and what about ATMs, where I simply cannot step out of the way without losing my place in the queue? Sorry, but I consider that it is my liberty, not that of the tobacco misuser, that is being infringed here.

    It seems to me that Liberal Vision, like free market libertarians generally, is somewhat selective in the liberties that it espouses. It is ever keen to jump to the defense of big business when the state is proposing to curb some of its more egregious excesses, while ignoring the much more serious threats to the liberties of individual people that this Tory government is presently considering. What has Liberal Vision had to say about the proposal to censor porn on the internet, or Cameron and May threatening to impose blanket martial law on under-16s? Not a dicky bird, as far as I am aware, or at least nothing that compares to its outrage when the freedom of its beloved tobacco industry to poison the human race is put under threat.

  • daft ha'p'orth 18th Nov '11 - 12:53pm

    @Senesco
    What? Of course the comparison is apt. Go read this. “Every two years living with obesity, relative to people who were never obese, resulted in a 6% increased risk of death due to any cause, a 7% increase in the risk of death following cardiovascular disease and a 3% increase in cancer-related mortality.”

    Ooh scary, look, an addiction that kills people, go homogeneise crisp packaging, quick! There is more than ‘virtual scientific unanimity’ that fatty foods cause some harm, however slight, to those who indulge. What’s more, I don’t know where you live or work but where I work it is virtually impossible to buy anything for lunch that is actually ‘healthy’, although I can choose from about a hundred different types of crisps alone, so I’d say it’s being pushed pretty hard. However – wth the greatest of respect to those who see this otherwise – whilst I’d very much like to see the government do more to encourage positive alternatives, if I wanted to see them ban Walkers, Nestle and Ginster, I’d have voted for Labour.

    Regarding the censorship of porn, DEAct and so forth… yes, censorship and control-freakery on the Internet is very concerning, but as you can see from this thread, most people are too busy trying to find ways to damage their own personal least favourite thing to bother worrying about matters of principle. Also, porn is probably addictive. And damaging.

    On another note: respectfully, if you’re so concerned about smoke that you tend to cross the street/leave ATM queues to avoid smokers, I would quite seriously recommend researching and buying a decent mask/respirator (apparently N95 or P95 will do). Half of Asia takes this approach, so it’s not exactly unprecedented, and it solves the immediate problem.

  • This thread seems to have degenerated into paranoia, where the slippery slope fallacy is invoked to conjure images of imminent bans of all things harmful.

    Oh and daft ha’p’orth, a mask isn’t sufficient to filter out most of the particles from cigarette smoke…

  • Just put a large photo of Miliband, Cameron or Clegg on every packet.

  • Old Codger Chris 18th Nov '11 - 6:53pm

    The suggestion is plain packaging not some major assault on basic human rights.

    If the tobacco industry’s opposition is caused by anything other than a concern that fewer people may smoke it is wasting its shareholders’ money by campaigning against it. Somehow I doubt whether shareholders will complain as they, like everyone else, know it’s part of the industry’s rearguard action to slow the decline in western markets while poisoning as many people as possible in Africa and Asia etc.

    If the industry’s bleatings had always been accepted they would still be advertising fags on childrens TV like when I were a little lad.

  • I am very happy to hear that Stephen is infavour of the Australian ideas on smoking. Whilst I Have sympathy for smokers being adicted to such a horible and expensive habit. As one of my oldest friends smokes and wishes she had never startedi do not think it is a human right to smoke as everyone has a right to breath clean air. As a child I was exposed to a lot of cigaret smoke. And at work until baned could not avoid it. As a pedestrian I cannot now avoid it when out side. I am very sensitive to cigaret smoke and as I am still taking anti cancer medicine it is the last thing I should be exposed too. I hate to see cigatette companies hurt smokers adults and children with there advertising. I support Stephens views on this.
    If Smoking wasn’t harmfull I might put up with the odour. My attitude steams from not being able to avoid smoke in most places for most of my life. No offence wished to any smokers.

  • Richard Cartwright 13th Dec '11 - 3:40am

    As a lifelong smoker, it is sad to witness the change in society’s attitude from tolerance to outright bigotry and prejudice. To think that the combustion of a leaf that has been a part of our culture for centuries could attract such bile and unkindness makes it hard not to despair of human nature. Life will always be a messy and difficult thing. Let us all beware of puritanism. And remember that pollution of the mind with inappropriate fear is the real danger!

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