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.