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Proposals for the plain packaging of tobacco are nonsensical and lacking any solid evidence to justify implementation. The consultation, launched today, follows in the wake of legislation which has banned tobacco advertising, vending machines and smoking in public places, as well as a tobacco display ban in all retail outlets. All of these moves have been legislated and enforced in the last decade. Aside from legal changes, the industry has also become awash with graphic health warnings and tobacco duty has reached unprecedented levels.
The government consultation is not being launched from a level playing field. The government is actually funding the pro-plain packaging lobby in certain areas of the country and the anti-smoking zealots are vastly better funded than the rational Hands off Our Packs counter campaign, demonstrating a worrying lack of government objectivity. Practically the proposals may well be a boon for counterfeiters, whilst philosophically the plans are an assault to consumer choice and individual freedom.
There is no evidence that the introduction of plain packaging would lessen the appeal of tobacco or have a positive effect on public health. Australia is the only country to have introduced the draconian legislation and it does not come into full effect until later this year. The pro plain packaging lobby’s claims about its potential impact are, therefore, purely speculative. Decisions which are ostracising a minority group – consumers of a legal product – should be based on fact. The government should at least wait and see the effect the legislation has on Australian smokers. Moreover, we are yet to know the full effect of the aforementioned moves such as display bans and graphic health warnings. Government legislation into everyday lives should be based on evaluation wherever possible; here they have an opportunity. How are we to know the relative effect of various measures if several are introduced at once?
These proposals are not about ‘plain’ packaging. If enforced we would see the introduction of dull coloured packets with more noticeable graphic health warnings adorning the entire packet. This is based on an assumption that this would be less appealing to children, yet, again there is no evidence of this as nowhere else in the world has fully enforced the legislation. Children will smoke if they really want to, regardless of packaging. The government should focus on tougher enforcement of existing laws if they really want to crack down on youth smoking. Tighter penalities for proxy buying, for example, would likely have much greater efficacy in reducing the amount of under-18s who take up smoking.
As mentioned above, we should be seriously concerned with the government’s lack of objectivity in launching this consultation. Last Friday the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley announced that he wants tobacco companies to have “no business” in the UK, a ridiculous statement from a member of our allegedly ‘pro-business’ government. More worryingly however, it has recently emerged that nearly half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money is being spent on lobbying in favour of plain tobacco packaging in the South West of England. The regional Primary Care Trust receives this money from the NHS Strategic Health Authority, which is funded by the Department of Health, paid for by none other than the taxpayer. This is government spending your money to lobby government, hardly a fair and equitable start for a consultation. South West England is just one area; speculatively, if these levels were spent across the country by all PCTs, it amounts to £5 million of taxpayers’ money.
Counterfeiting is a substantial and growing problem, with imitation tobacco accounting for 65% of cigarettes seized within the EU, with over 190 billion manufactured in China each year. Plain packaging will make a counterfeiter’s life much easier as products will become much more simple to replicate. A considerable amount of British smokers are from low-income backgrounds. Whilst these people cannot afford to pay nearly £8 for a packet of cigarettes, they can afford the £1.50 black market packet which somebody is illegally touting in their local community. These may become much more prevalent if plain packaging is introduced.
Ultimately, it is not even clear whether the enforcement of the proposals would even be legal; the British Brands Group has raised the point that the removal of branding is requisitioning the intellectual property of legitimate companies. It is unfair to take the choice away from consumers and leave price as the only influencing factor. It will also set a terrible precedent – it could be only a matter of time before other products deemed harmful are targeted, with the government already discussing similar legislation for alcohol. As cigarette plain packaging would be extremely damaging for small retailers and graphic designers, a similar policy with alcohol could be much more damaging. It would be the death knell for the UK’s microbreweries, for example.
Let’s be clear. Plain packaging is not a health policy. As Christopher Snowdon eruditely put it, it is a policy which ‘neither informs nor educates.’ Practically it will be a huge inconvenience to retailers and it is quite clearly based on spurious evidence. Perhaps most importantly though, it is an attack on both personal liberty and individual choice. I challenge someone to argue that there exists anyone in this country unaware that smoking is an unhealthy past time. We must not allow the government to infantilise us and lead us into a nanny-state in which the principles of the free market and individual freedom are overlooked. Plain packaging would be tantamount to the denormalisation of a legal product. A product which brings in over £10 billion to the Treasury each year at that. Surely the government has better things to discuss in a time of financial austerity than a bogus proposal with ambiguous results.
By Stephanie Lis
- The Freedom Association’s Magna Carta Pimms and Politics Cruise on June 15, 2013 12:30 pm
- Conservative Renewal Conference on September 14, 2013
- The Freedom Zone on September 30, 2013
- The Freedom Zone on October 1, 2013
- Christmas Lunch in the Cotswolds on December 7, 2013 12:30 pm
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