It’s time to act on tobacco packs

It is over a year now since this coalition opened its consultation on tobacco packaging and we are still waiting for their answer. Come to that, it will soon be five years since Alan Johnson launched the Labour government’s consultation.

Kevin Barron is MP for Rother Valley and former chair of the health select committee

It is over a year now since this coalition opened its consultation on tobacco packaging and we are still waiting for their answer. Come to that, it will soon be five years since Alan Johnson launched the Labour government’s consultation.

At the time it was judged that were too many unanswered questions, but five years on there is now evidence enough to justify action. We know because Public Health Minister Anna Soubry told the Today programme so:

“I’ve seen the evidence. I’ve seen the consultation. I’ve been personally persuaded of it, but that doesn’t mean to say that all my colleagues in government on both sides of the house are persuaded.”

Some might say a good indication of how good a tobacco policy is how much big tobacco hates it. Standardising packaging seems to have scared the tobacco manufacturers like nothing before. They have used all their usual tactics, so familiar from the 2007 smoking ban and the Labour government’s subsequent Health Act (remember the front groups, bogus stats and all those legal threats?).

This time they are not leaving it all to their proxies, however. Japan Tobacco has paid for a series of full page ads in National newspapers and put them out in its own name. Given the succession of ASA rulings against the ads, the £2million campaign may have backfired.

The tobacco industry has two arguments. First, that plan packaging will be a disaster that will hurt small business and increase smuggling. Second, as it has never been done before, it is impossible to say how it will turn out. That these two positions are mutually contradictory does not appear to be a problem.

Of course, the UK would not quite be the first; Australia’s Labour government introduced standard packs last December and the independent evidence is that retailers have done reasonably well and the time it takes to sell a pack of cigarettes has gone down, not up.The Australian market for illicit tobacco is tiny and mostly domestically produced ‘chop chop’ so unlikely to help UK policy makers much.

Tobacco smuggling is rife

JTI says tobacco smuggling in the UK is booming, in fact it has fallen by half (see ASA ruling). The APPG on Smoking and Health recently published an inquiry into illicit trade and recommended in favour of standardised packaging.

The point of the policy is not to stimulate smokers to quit (although some might), nor to help ex-smokers stay tobacco-free (although for many the prominent graphic warnings will reinforce that they have made the right choice). The point is to reduce the number of new young smokers who start to smoke.

Children start to smoke for many reasons – and any sensible strategy will tackle several of them at once. Tobacco advertising is certainly one. Children who grew up after Labour’s tobacco ad ban are now coming to the age where they might have started to smoke but we now have the lowest levels of childhood smoking since records began, half what it was at the time of the ban.

Smoking graph

That is not a reason to ease up, however, but a reason to stick with what works and part of what works is stopping the industry from promoting their products.


A large and growing body of research shows that tobacco packaging has an important influence on young people. As well as being attractive, the industry uses packaging to send messages that the cigarettes in one pack are less harmful than another.

To say so outright would be false and illegal but the tobacco industry send the message colour coding packs and young people understand – and often believe – what they are being told. Children perceive the ‘low tar’ packs as being less addictive and more suitable for young smokers.

Health campaigners have clearly won the argument. It is not just Anna Soubry who they have convinced, polls show that the public are behind them four to one.

Public support for plain packaging

Hunt can also count on the support of his other ministers, Lib Dem Norman Lamb and Dr Dan Poulter – both of whom have engaged in the debate previously. The cabinet heavyweights are said to be among the backers as is the Labour front bench and last week opposition MPs were literally queuing up to voice their support.

It seems Hunt has the support of everybody apart from the industry he is meant to be regulating. Given the record of Hunt as culture secretary, Hunt the health secretary might think now is a good time to stand up to too-powerful industry lobbyists.

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