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Why I am against plain packaging of tobacco

February 6th, 2012 Posted in Uncategorized by

Earlier today I mentioned that I have joined Forests Hands Off Our Packs campaign opposing the introduction of plain packaging of  tobacco. I promised a fuller explanation of why I am opposing it . Here are my reasons

The term ‘plain packaging’ is deliberately misleading. The Tobacco Control industry doesn’t want plain packs at all. It wants cigarettes sold in ugly, standardised, uniformly coloured packets with even larger and more grotesque graphic health warnings on both sides of the packet. And this is meant to help people quit smoking? Ever larger health warnings and gross pictures haven’t worked to date – and we all know why. If you want to encourage obese people to take up a healthier lifestyle you don’t start out by showing them how disgusting they are. You offer inspirational and supportive messages. If the aim of Government is to encourage quitting – and insists on continuing with messages on packets– why not make images and messages on packs positive/informative – say, showing the quit line number – or a picture of a sportsman- (hey you could be like this if you quit smoking). Making packs even grosser than they already won’t achieve the aim of cutting smoking, it is saying you are disgusting and society should feel free to have a dig at you – that is tantamount to state bullying and that has no place in an educated free society.

There is actually no evidence that ‘plain’ packaging will stop under 18s from taking up smoking or help adult smokers quit. That is because only one country – Australia – has decided to introduce “plain” packs. This law comes into effect later this year. Doesn’t it make sense to wait a few months to assess the impact – and identify any unintended consequences – before we race headlong to similar legislation in the UK? What is the rush? The ban on vending machines has only just been introduced and the ban on displaying tobacco in shops has not even started. We should surely assess the outcomes there.  There have been grand claims made in the UK about the many “research studies” that have been conducted showing the positive effect that “plain” packaging will have on youth smoking rates. But I think that we should take such studies with a pinch of salt. Asking people whether they think “plain packaging” would help people quit, or deter youngsters is just speculation…opinion.. It is not evidence. I spent many years working in market research and I know that what people say they will do when they are talking to researchers – is not what they do in real life. So are the tobacco control researchers stupid? I doubt it. I am afraid we are seeing all too many “activist academics” who start with an idea and then work out,with evangelical zeal, how to “prove it”.  I support an “evidence based drugs policy”, not studies asking people to second guess what they might do, run by people seeking to prove their ideas are right rather than finding the truth. And I say again – beware of unintended consequences – I am deeply concerned that making tobacco more taboo is just going to encourage more under 18s to take it up not less.

If the aim of government is to reduce the take up of smoking amongst children why not tackle the real issue – distribution. We already have laws that prevent the sale of tobacco to under 18’s. Spending money on enforcing existing laws would be much better use of public money than rushing to introduce new ones. The sale of illicit and counterfeit cigarettes is a huge problem in the UK as well as the rest of Europe. It is estimated that 190 billion are manufactured each year in China alone and 65 per cent of the cigarettes seized in the EU are counterfeit. These fake cigarettes contain eye-watering high levels of heavy metals, rodent droppings and goodness knows what else (go watch the Panorama programme). If we care about public health – then let’s get rid of these. Criminal gangs don’t care who they sell to and are offering them at half the price of legitimate cigarettes. Where do you think kids will go to get their cigarettes? And “plain” packaging will make the counterfeiter’s job easier. According to Ruth Orchard, director general of the Anti-Counterfeiting Group,

“Plain packaging represents an invitation to counterfeiting. If put into practice for the tobacco industry, this could impact on all sectors where counterfeiting is rife. It creates a trading environment where packaging is no longer distinctive and products become easy to replicate illegally.”

So why are we punishing the local community shop keeper – making it more difficult for him to ply his trade, whilst making it easier for his competitor, the criminal gang boss, to do business?

Courtesy: didbygraham

We know that actions have consequences and in a liberal society we should encourage everyone to take responsibility for their lifestyle choices. But I for one won’t accept government shouting at us hysterically every time we do something that the state disapproves of. That is exactly what “plain” packaging amounts to. It is, as I say earlier, state bullying. If we allow plain packaging on tobacco how long before we see similar state diktats spread to other products. And it frankly does not wash that tobacco is a special case and plain packaging on other goods won’t follow. Sin taxes brought in on tobacco exist on alcohol already, with calls from the health lobby to go much further (minimum pricing) and now we see calls for a Fat Tax. We have health warnings on tobacco – and we are now seeing calls for health warnings on alcohol. We will soon experience a display ban on tobacco – we are now seeing pressure to stop sweets on display at checkout stations. We have the smoking ban – to limit where you can smoke – and we are now seeing calls for the reintroduction of more stringent licensing laws limiting where and when you can drink. If we allow the packaging of a legal product like tobacco to be interfered with to such an extent, it is only a matter of time before chocolate bars and other “unhealthy foods”, fizzy drinks and alcohol (all considered addictive by the way) similarly disfigured. And I can tell the argument they will use – if we put tobacco in plain packs to signal it is a public “bad” – we are sending a signal to young people that fizzy drinks/chocolate/fatty foods/alcohol are ok to consume and we can’t have that.

There are other issues that weigh seriously with me but the above are the most important. To me.

As a Liberal Democrat I believe in discourse and debate. I am not asking you to sign the petition against it for the reasons above. These are my reasons. But I would urge all Liberal Democrats to not allow their dislike of smoking to cloud their judgement. Be clear of all of the issues – including the possible unintended consequences of legislation- before making  a decision. I would especially ask our politicians not to jump on the anti-tobacco band wagon – nor disrespect those that engage with them by accusing them of being “tobacco stooges” when they disagree.  People are getting very angry that law after law is being passed without reference to the consequences, or effectiveness, of past or even upcoming legislation.

All of the above are reasonable arguments I think, why we should say loud and clear NO to plain packaging. And they are the reasons why I have joined the Hands Off Our Packs Campaign. But perhaps my mum has the best response to the plan to introduce “plain” packaging… “Well that won’t bloody work!” And she is right. Mums always are.

9 Responses to “Why I am against plain packaging of tobacco”

  1. ChrisB Says:

    After ignoring all cautionary advice and imposing their smoking ban the Healthist agenda is a rallying call for all and every aspiring expert to gain funding for their health-scare headlines.
    Those that call for plain packaging haven’t even got any evidence!
    Any legislation concerning tobacco,fast food, alcohol, and the diet of children must therefore be founded on clear principles. In general health is an important consideration but seldom the only one. It is also right and proper to consider people’s desires, their social needs, and the long-term interests of public order and community sentiment.

  2. Truckerlyn Says:

    Very well said ChrisB.

    The smoking ban is that successful that there are now more people smoking than pre-ban! Pre-ban, the number of people smoking was in steady decline, so if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

    The sad thing is that our governments are being hoodwinked into spending millions, of not billions, on useless NRT products and in the process lining, very nicely, the pockets of the big pharmaceutical companies who are behind the likes of ASH. Not only that, we, the tax paying public, are paying dearly for the likes of the ASH brethren to live the high and sanctamonious life on high wages, whilst we the majority of us struggle! ASH – a ‘charity’ that receives, I believe, less than 1% of its funding from charitable donations – how does that work?

    This whole issue a very sad and destructive con trick and it is even sadder when those elected to run this country can be so easily duped!

  3. Dave Atherton Says:

    Angela, it does not get more pernicious than this:

    Article 5.3 of the FCTC is in the URL below.

    Clause 8 makes it legally binding on the UK (it was signed by the Foreign Office in 2005) and says “8. The aim of these guidelines is to assist Parties in meeting their LEGAL obligations under Article 5.3 of the Convention”

    So we cannot vote out 5.3.

    Even more nasty is clause 11. So as Chairman of Freedom2Choose we as a group who have no financial relationship with tobacco companies are also excluded from ALL consultations. This is a denial of democratic and civil rights in my opinion. Anne Milton the Health Minister and Stephen Williams MP have both declined evidence from me.

    This is quite wrong.

    “The broad array of strategies and tactics used by the tobacco industry to interfere with the setting and implementing of tobacco control measures, such as those that Parties to the Convention are required to implement, is documented by a vast body of evidence. The measures recommended in these guidelines aim at protecting against interference not only by the tobacco industry but also, as appropriate, by organizations and individuals that work to
    further the interests of the tobacco industry.”

  4. Frank J Says:

    I’m not sure that the word ‘legal’ is correct. The FCTC is a treaty which stands only as long as the signatories agree to it’s terms. The antis may throw the word legal about but it’s as valid a piece of paper as Neville Chamberlaine’s ‘peace in our time’.

    Notwithstanding, taken in conjunction with it’s guidelines, this document is pre Magna Carta!

  5. CI Says:

    As a liberal the smoking ban was hugely liberating to me. I could go to the pub and not come back smelly. Pubs started to serve decent food, as their customer’s could taste it. The risk of getting a cigarette in the eye at a rock concert was reduced. All good.

    Smoking is antisocial as, on top of the admittedly more important health issues, it stinks. As an ex-smoker, I’m aware that most cigarettes are full of absolute rubbish ( i.e. poor quality tobacco)and that really, really good tobacco (those expensive cuban cigars etc) actually smells quite nice, as does good apple-flavoured turkish tobacco etc. Ordinary cigarettes are arguably healthier (less nicotine as there’s less actual tobacco) or not (more chemicals) but they stink bad. Those that smoke also stink, as I used to. They don’t stink as much as I used to, but that’s becuase I was a Lucky Strike man and they are truly stinky. Shame on me.

    Smoking regulation was never about freedom as one smoker amongst ten non-smokers impacts more heavily on those ten than justifies the freedom to that one. If you want a cigarette, go somewhere else to smoke it, but then feel free to enjoy it so long as you pay enough tax to cover the impact on the NHS, though arguably a pension subsidy is in order if you die early.

    Plain packaging is thoeretically about shifting competition between cigarette brands between the ‘image’ (Marlboro man etc) and the actual cigarette. It potentially helps remind smokers to think of the cigarette in terms of what they are consuming (usually poor quality nicotine twigs with chemicals to stop them going out too quickly or getting soggy). If at the very least (though unlikely) this makes the manufacturers provide smokers with better quality tobacco, then you’ll stink less and maybe us non-smokers will start to leave you alone. Until that time, try swapping 20 a day for a really nice cigar once a week. Won’t help you quit but it’ll be a lot nicer for everyone…

  6. Angela Harbutt Says:

    CI – or should I call you stinky(joke!)..thanks for the comment.Re your point about the quality of tobacco, every marketing specialist who has commented on plain packaging so far has said that removing branding will commodotise the market and make all companies compete only on price. Casually this may sound good but actually it will drive down profit (not good for HMRC)AND quality – not good for smokers (or people like you who like smell of quality cigarettes).

    Also this is not about the smoking ban – though to answer your point i can see why non-smoking pubs and restaurants would be welcomed by many consumers (though certainly not all). Forcing ALL pubs and working mens clubs to ban smoking however is draconian. My mum is deeply unhappy that her favorite local pub has shut as a result of the smoking ban (they were in local paper)- and they had a smoking room and a non-smoking room before the ban.So she (a non-smoker) has been deprived totally of her weekly social outing as a result. All sorts of freedoms going up in smoke there…

    Anyway – enough for now. But thanks again for comment.

  7. Dave Atherton Says:


    You may have a point about the smell but on these points is it not minimal?

    We pass laws because you have to shower and use a washing machine?

    Over 6,000 pubs have closed post ban, causing, as Angela noted social dislocation

    It is estimated that 100-150,000 full and part time jobs have been lost, many amongst the least affluent. For example how many women topped up their income with a night or two serving in a bar?

    As a patron you have every right, pubs being private property to avoid these places. No one put a gun to your head or coerced you to go in the first place.

    Is it a price worth paying for?

  8. Charlotte Norris Says:

    Nice joke about being a liberal, CI. The old ones are the best.

  9. teas Saint Cloud Says:

    Credits to all the good points on this argument. The query to whether or not smoking is or is not is still unfading, but the real action must come from smokers themselves. Do we really think that there will still be suppliers if no one’s smoking anyway?