On public health this government is in the pocket of big business and sleazy lobbyists

Today we saw yet another disgraceful capitulation by this government to the interests of their friends in big business.

Today we saw yet another disgraceful capitulation by this government to the interests of their friends in big business.

Despite all the evidence pointing to the fact that standardised tobacco packaging deters young people from taking up smoking, the government has done a u-turn.

Ministers say they need more evidence and that they are waiting to see the results of the introduction of standardised packaging in Australia. This is a completely spurious excuse. How much more evidence does the government need?

The government’s own systematic review of peer reviewed studies, carried out for the Department of Health (DH), found that, compared to branded cigarettes, plain standard packaging is: less attractive, especially to young people; improves the effectiveness of health warnings; reduces mistaken beliefs that some brands are ‘safer’ than others; and is therefore likely to reduce smoking uptake amongst children and young people.

Over a hundred lung doctors and consultants signed a letter recently saying ‘Restrictions on advertising and sponsorship mean that the cigarette pack has become the key marketing tool employed by the tobacco industry to attract and retain customers’.

In the UK, around 200,000 children aged 11-15 start smoking every year. There is compelling evidence that children’s perceptions of cigarettes are influenced by branding and that branding detracts from the impact of health warnings on packs.

This is the reason why the former Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley said:

“The evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers.” 

Even current Tory Public health minister Anna Soubry said recently that she was “personally persuaded” of the case for standardised packaging of cigarettes. And health minister Norman Lamb has said:

‘”I think it would be a legacy for this government to have legislated on something which would be a landmark public health reform and to be out there in front in Europe. It’s something that both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives could be very proud of”.

Another health minister, Dr Dan Poulter, has said:

“Introducing plain packaging for cigarettes could certainly help to reduce the brand marketing appeal of cigarettes to teenagers, and most importantly, help to stop young people from developing a smoking habit that can only shorten their lives.” 

But now the government has dropped the idea under pressure from the tobacco industry. And no doubt the hospitality lavished on members of Parliament by the tobacco industry at premium social events like the Chelsea flower Show and Glyndebourne didn’t hurt.

But the decision also carries the murky fingerprints of David Cameron’s political strategist Lynton Crosby. His company has had major contracts from the tobacco industry in the past and no doubt he was one of the voices urging the prime minister to take this decision.

Along with dropping Cameron’s personal commitment to a minimum unit price for alcohol, the government’s public health strategy is in tatters. Pleasing big business is more important to this government than the health of the nation.

This is the ‘old politics’, where the public looks on as politicians seem helpless in the hands of vested interests and lobbyists, and decisions are taken behind closed doors.

Tobacco remains Britain’s biggest single killer and cause of health inequality. Standardised packaging is a vital tool in reducing tobacco harm.

Above all this episode reveals the extent to which this government is in the pocket of big business and sleazy lobbyists.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.