Paul Burstow MP writes…Standardised cigarette packaging – reviewing the evidence, or just kicking the can down the road?

The news today that the Coalition Government is launching an independent review of the evidence for standardised packaging is welcome. It marks an important shift from the position Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt took in July that he would wait until the “emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured”. Australia of course led the world when the previous Government, with all Party support, introduced standardised packaging in December last year.

More welcome still is that news that the Government will take the legal powers to introduce standardised packaging in the Children and Families Bill

A four month review if it leads to a rapid decision and implementation is one thing. But a review takes the heat off and could just kick the can down the road a little longer.

Big tobacco have been busy as the Observer reported in July, the tobacco multinational Philip Morris developed a secret corporate lobbying strategy to try to persuade the Government to “wait see what happens in Australia [for two or three years]”. In a recent letter to MPs and peers, PMI’s Director of Corporate Affairs for the UK and Ireland described the Government’s refusal to legislate as “sensible”. That alone should have been enough to start loud alarm bells ringing in the Department of Health.

PMI and the other tobacco multinationals know that most smokers start when they are children. Cancer Research UK have estimated that around 200,000 children under 16 began to smoke in 2011 alone. Because nicotine is such an addictive drug, many of those who start to smoke as children will find it impossible to quit as adults. Big tobacco needs to recruit more smokers to replace those who quit or, more chillingly, die from their addiction. We need a strong presumption in favour of action to protect the health of children and young people from the harm that smoking does.

That requires regulation to prevent marketing of tobacco to children. We already, rightly have a general ban on tobacco advertising, creating in the UK what the tobacco industry mournfully refers to as a “dark market”. The pack is the last means by which the industry can create a brand identity to appeal to its target markets, conveniently displayed to current and potential consumers every time a smoker takes a pack out of a pocket. We can readily discover what image the different brands are trying to convey by looking at countries which have yet to institute advertising bans, and at unregulated websites. So we find, for example, multiple websites advertising the British American Tobacco brand “Vogue Cigarettes”, which are specifically designed to appeal to young women. Or, as the standard internet marketing blurb has it: “Vogue Cigarettes’ all-white box design with a tiny colored branch and different colored leaves reflects the romantic essence that is Vogue Cigarettes.” An “essence” that leads to lung cancer, emphysema, peripheral vascular disease or any other of the long list of horrible smoking related diseases. How romantic.

Calling the policy of ending such marketing devices “plain packaging” is misleading. Standardised packaging is what we really should be talking about. Packs will have uniform colours, and will contain strong health messages both in pictures and in writing, as well as information on stop smoking services. As shown by the systematic review of scientific evidence summarised in the Department of Health’s consultation document on standardised packaging, the way in which packaging is designed has a clear psychological impact, and standardised packaging should reduce the likelihood of people taking up smoking and increase the likelihood of their quitting. A further 17 studies have concluded much the same.

The evidence is already there; we do not need to wait for more from Australia. What has been lacking so far is political will in Government. So Parliament has led the way, as it did when the last Government tried to duck its responsibility to introduce a comprehensive ban on smoking in enclosed public places. In the Lords my Lib Dem colleague, Claire Tyler, led the charge working cross party to build support, and in the Commons the All Party Group on Smoking and Health has galvanised cross party support.

Standardised packaging is another step on the journey of changing public attitudes and saving lives. Today’s announcement is a welcome step in that direction, but the pace must now quicken.

* Paul Burstow is Liberal Democrat candidate for Sutton and Cheam and was the MP until the dissolution of Parliament on 30th March.

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  • A question for those liberals for whom “to liberalise” means “to restrict”:
    In relation to smoking, is there a point which you would consider to be “going to far”? For example would banning smoking be “going too far”?

  • Whilst standardised packaging probably IS a good thing, in terms of smoker numbers, I do wonder how much impact it will have when the packages are already behind those little scrolling doors in supermarkets and petrol stations, and indeed, soon other shops. When you can’t see the packets anyway, does the packet really matter? This seems like a false folly, and a bit of a waste of time.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 28th Nov '13 - 7:50pm

    Considering the harm caused by so many edible products, will the government also be considering standardised packaging for food products?

  • I’m not convinced that having plain/standardised packets makes it less likely someone will smoke – but I am not opposed to the idea, on the face of it. If it helps discourage people from picking up their first packet – great!
    @Richard S I’m not quite sure where you are going with your comment. There is nothing in the proposal that restricts people from being able to buy cigarettes.
    I quit smoking about four months ago. I smoked for ten years and in the last two or three years I am convinced that a handful of retailers attempted to sell me counterfeit cigarettes. What enabled me to challenge this, and ultimately refuse to buy them, is that the packaging didn’t quite look right. Standardised packets could make it much easier to sell counterfeit cigarettes because there is nothing that helps the consumer spot it.
    We must remember that smoking is still a perfectly legal activity and as such there is a duty to make sure that the products they buy comply with all the safety standards and also have had duty paid. If we can make sure there are sensible anti-counterfeiting measures in place, which empower the consumer, I will fully support standardised packaging proposals.

  • Melanie Harvey 28th Nov '13 - 11:24pm

    Smoking will never be banned because there is too much revenue from it and that far outweighs any costs to the NHS through smoking related illness. Precisely the reason this packaging is being pushed for and so any from mainland Europe for which duty hasnt been paid on, can be easily identified. Has absolutely nothing to do with stopping them being attractive to children at all.

  • Robert Wootton 29th Nov '13 - 12:05am

    Let those who smoke, smoke. And bring back smoking rooms and areas in pubs and other public places. We already have red light districts. And now the anti-smoking lobby have created anti-social blue smoke areas outside pubs and cafes.

  • I like the information now starting to come out of Australia:
    1. With the distinctive branding removed, the legislation has made it easier to distribute and sell unbranded/illicit cigarettes.
    2. Plain packaging legislation is reckoned to have lost the Australian Treasury A$1bn ($946m, £578m) in tax revenue in its first six months, as smokers switched to unbranded cigarettes,
    3. The number of smokers in Australia appears to be unchanged.

    So I expect the policy to be kicked into the long grass …

    As for “The pack is the last means by which the industry can create a brand identity to appeal to its target markets, conveniently displayed to current and potential consumers every time a smoker takes a pack out of a pocket.”, I suspect the Australian experience is showing that the pack itself is all that is needed to have an effect. But then we basically already knew that as people took up smoking because it was ‘cool’ etc. it was only later, once hooked, that they became attached to a particular brand.

  • Why bother waiting for the evidence?

    This is led by prejudice, just get on with screwing over people who do things you don’t like.

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