Comment: Tobacco control plan is a victory for public health

Ella Jackson is the policy and public affairs intern and Robin Hewings is the tobacco control policy manager at Cancer Research UK.
Ella Jackson is the policy and public affairs intern and Robin Hewings is the tobacco control policy manager at Cancer Research UK.

Action on tobacco displays, a review of plain packaging and a tough approach to the tobacco industry add up to a good start.

By Robin Hewings and Ella Jackson

The coalition government's new tobacco control plan is a victory for the nation's health - and a defeat for the tobacco industry. Displays of tobacco in shops will go and the government will consider whether cigarettes should be sold in plain packs. Taking action against tobacco marketing is always welcome: smoking causes one-in-four deaths from cancer, and half of long-term smokers will die from an addiction formed, in most cases, in their teens.

Large, brightly lit shop displays of tobacco act like big adverts for cigarette brands and, placed next to the sweets and crisps in shops, make smoking seem like an invitingly normal, everyday activity rather than a deadly addiction.

The tobacco industry has led a considerable campaign in favour of tobacco displays, based on various dubious arguments. They have suggested that removing displays will cost retailers thousands in refit costs. In fact, when similar laws were introduced in Ireland their shops found it straightforward to adapt and shop refits cost an average of £300. The government has done well to stand up to these vested interests.

It's good that tobacco displays will eventually be going, but the next step must be to end the attractive branding of cigarettes. This could be every bit as significant in combating the harms of tobacco as the advertising ban or the end of smoking in public places.

Branding is used to make cigarettes appeal to different people, such as pink packets or long slim cigarettes for young women. The introduction of plain packs would make all cigarettes and packets look the same. Research has found that this would make smoking less attractive to young people and would also improve the effectiveness of health warnings. Cigarette companies use colours like silver to indicate that some types of cigarettes are lower in tar and suggest they are safer than other brands when, in fact, this is not true. Plain packaging removes false beliefs about how harmful different tobacco products are.

But the government's plans are not just about marketing - there are new ambitions to cut smoking among adults, teenagers and pregnant women at a faster rate in the next five years than in the previous five. People will be encouraged not to expose their families and children to second-hand smoke. The price of tobacco will continue to rise. Tobacco smuggling has halved in the last decade but there is more to do and the government is committed to better ways of working at the local, national and international level.

Local authorities - with new public health responsibilities - are encouraged to promote smokefree homes and cars while making sure local people get top quality, good value stop smoking services. Councils that meet this challenge with resources, intelligence and energy will really improve the health of those they serve.

The tobacco control plan is a testament to the campaigning of a huge range of organisations that care about the nation's health and want to reduce the harm from smoking. Charities such as Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation line up alongside medical bodies such as the BMA and royal colleges for physicians and GPs. We join together because we see the damage caused by smoking and the evidence for what works to cut smoking. These motivations are in contrast to the tobacco industry whose interests are inherently opposed to the nation's health - their obligations to shareholders require them to maximise profits and sales of cigarettes. The industry's past record is such that the government limits its discussions with them to operational matters. They prefer to influence through front groups but in future anyone who lobbies the Department of Health on tobacco policy will have to declare their links to the industry.

Action on tobacco displays, a review of plain packaging, commitment to stop smoking services and a tough approach to the tobacco industry add up to a good start for the government. The crucial next step is to implement plain packaging and end the dangerously seductive branding of cigarettes.

Robin Hewings is the tobacco control policy manager and Ella Jackson is the policy and public affairs intern at Cancer Research UK.

The opinions in's Speakers Corner are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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