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?
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.