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A plain and simple step: England’s proposed cigarette packaging laws

Edmund Stubbs, 22 January 2015

Today public health minister Jane Ellison announced that a new law imposing plain unbranded cigarette packaging in England (first proposed in 2010) will be voted on before the next general election, if successful coming into effect by 2016.

Support from all large parties is one of the reasons that this law has finally been realised, in imitation of the introduction of plain tobacco packaging in Australia in 2012; soon followed by the UK’s neighbour, Ireland.

The fact that all major tobacco companies have been violently opposed to such a law and have sought to suppress its introduction is strong evidence of its effectiveness in probably reducing general tobacco sales. In Australia, the law has not been implemented long enough for decisive research on sales to have been published, but at least a modest reduction in consumption seems likely.

Some tobacco companies argue that once familiar identifiable brands disappear from the shelves people will be inclined to choose the cheapest option, perhaps encouraging them to buy more. However, the proposed law is based on substantial evidence that a lack of branding would be an important measure in preventing future generations from adopting the smoking habit.

Critics of the proposed legislation outside the industry have questioned its “fairness” towards tobacco companies and indeed to citizens who freely choose themselves to smoke.

Tobacco companies, despite continuous campaigns against cigarette smoking in many countries, still declare large profits, in some cases equivalent to the entire GDP of small nations. Government bodies invest in these companies, as do pension funds and many other financial concerns, therefore a catastrophic post legislation decrease in their profitability seems unlikely.

As regards their appeal to consumers, instead of relying on smart graphics and “style consciousness”, companies will now have to rely on the quality and taste of their products to compete, or might even decide to “invest” in brandable e-cigarettes (which are much less damaging to one’s health) to ensure that their brand is still recognised!

If adults choose to smoke it is certainly their right to do so. However, the fact should not be overlooked that half of all regular smokers will die prematurely as a direct consequence of their habit and that their illnesses require the use of substantial NHS resources. Plain packaging will both emphasise the health warnings on packets and reduce the “gimmicky” effects of branding, known to be particularly enticing to younger users.

The plain packaging law seems likely to be passed by the UK parliament. In Australia legislators were confronted with the “Australia-Hong Kong Bilateral Investment Treaty”, including an “investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS)” clause which permitted companies to sue governments if new legislation might harm their profits.

Tobacco giant Phillip Morris International declared itself to be a “Hong Kong investor” in order to take legal action against the Australian government in this respect but has so far been unsuccessful. Similar legislation in the UK seems likely to be passed before implementation the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is implemented in any form (with or without an ISDS clause) making it harder for companies to appeal against the new packaging restrictions here.

Hopefully, the current coalition government, in the context of the current squabbles over public health policy, will not want to be seen as failing in the implementation of so beneficial measure this close to an election! Thus, it seems plain cigarette packaging is highly likely to be introduced in 2016.

Edmund Stubbs, Healthcare Researcher

1 comment on “A plain and simple step: England’s proposed cigarette packaging laws”

  1. Here we have another high horse rider celebrating a new diktat by the Nanny State.
    If the resolution about plain packaging proves something is that the most powerful lobbying groups are not corporation but noisy campaigners with little evidence and lots of time and convictions.
    I smoke occasionally, mainly if I am out drinking and somebody offers me a tab, but last night I swear I fancied going to the shop, buying and having one of my own.
    The classical cry “can you think of the children” is absolutely misplaced. Kids smoke because their mates smoke. They’ll continue smoking after the introduction of the “branding” ban, they’ll just won’t feel the pressure of going for the most expensive brands.

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