Nov 22, 2010
The government is considering forcing tobacco companies to package their cigarettes in plain brown wrappers in a bid to de-glamorise smoking and stop young people taking up the habit.
The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, is investigating the viability of introducing what would be one of the most radical public health measures ever implemented in the UK.
Senior doctors welcomed the potential ban on colours and logos on packets and said it could prove as effective as the 2007 public smoking ban. However, ministers are likely to face a legal challenge if they go ahead.
“We have to try new approaches and take decisions to benefit the population. That’s why I want to look at the idea of plain packaging,” said Lansley. “The evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers, so it makes sense to consider having less attractive packaging. It’s wrong thatchildren are being attracted to smoke by glitzy designs on packets.”
Lansley stressed that the need to prevent children from starting to smoke in the first place was his main motivation for taking seriously a policy which the tobacco industry fears would be hugely damaging. “We would prefer it if people did not smoke, and adults will still be able to buy cigarettes [even if plain packs come in], but children should be protected from the start,” he said.
The health secretary indicated that some further restrictions on smoking are likely. They could be unveiled in his white paper on public health, which is due within days. “The levels of poor health and deaths from smoking are still far too high, and the cost to the NHS and the economy is vast. That money could be used to educate our children and treat cancer,” said Lansley.
His readiness to countenance such draconian action against cigarette manufacturers drew praise and delight from leading medical organisations. “We are very pleased that the health secretary supports the plain packaging of cigarettes. There is clear evidence that young people find packaging appealing,” said a spokesman for the British Medical Association. “And we know that the tobacco industry spends huge amounts on this clever marketing to enhance their brands and increase sales.”
Professor John Britton, chairman of the tobacco advisory group at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), which represents hospital doctors, said: “The RCP is glad that the government is considering the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes.”
“Putting tobacco in plain packs would be a historic step for public health and an amazing centrepiece for Andrew Lansley’s promised public health strategy,” said Martin Dockrell, spokesman for Action on Smoking and Health (Ash). “Marketing men have become increasingly pushy with pack design, making it a 21st-century billboard, identifying this brand as ‘cool’ and that brand as ‘feminine’.” According to Ash, two-thirds of smokers start before the age of 18 and in England one in seven 15-year-olds is a regular smoker.
Australia is set to become the first country in the world to introduce plain packs in 2012, although tobacco manufacturers have mounted legal action to try to stop the measure. The European Union is considering a ban.
Lansley’s move is a surprise. The Conservatives opposed plain packets when Gordon Brown’s Labour administration undertook a consultation on the idea. But this fresh examination may help to allay fears among medical chiefs at the direction of the coalition’s public health policies after, for example, Lansley criticised Jamie Oliver’s campaign to improve school lunches in England.
The BMA, RCP and Ash all called on the government to press ahead with implementing the planned ban on shops selling cigarettes openly, irrespective of whether it introduces plain packets. Under legislation passed under Labour, the point of sale ban is due to be phased in from next year, but the coalition has still not decided whether to honour their predecessors’ commitment.
“We need to protect children from any kind of tobacco advertising, and as the legislation to ban point-of-sale display has already been passed, it should be implemented as soon as possible, not postponed or repealed,” said Britton.The tobacco industry tonight said it rejected the whole idea of plain packets. It said there was no evidence to back the policy and claimed that it would lead to increased tobacco smuggling. “Whilst there are currently no specific government proposals for plain tobacco packaging, the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association is strongly opposed to the principle and would expect a genuine consultation and regulatory impact assessment if the government decides to pursue this further,” said the TMA’s chief executive, Christopher Ogden.
“The TMA does not believe any plans for plain packaging are based on sound public policy, nor any compelling evidence. Moves to prevent tobacco companies from exercising their intellectual property rights would place the government in breach of legal obligations relating to intellectual property, international trade and European law,” Ogden added.
“Plain packs are also likely to lead to yet further increases in the smuggling of tobacco products, and plain packs would make it so much easier for a counterfeiter to copy than existing branded packs, making it even more difficult for a consumer to differentiate between genuine and counterfeit products.”
Source: The Guardian (November 20, 2010)