By Andy Lloyd
There can scarcely be a parent – whether they smoke or not – who wants their child to smoke. And the plain packaging of tobacco products would be an important step in reducing the 340,000 children who start smoking each year.
When the tobacco industry begins mobilising front groups and starts playing hardball in an attempt to cast slurs on measures to cut smoking, you can generally tell it is worried about future profits.
And so the diatribe against plain tobacco packaging promoted this week by the Adam
Smith Institute, an organisation with a history of taking tobacco industry funding, did little to persuade me that it had the interests of evidence based health policy over profits at heart.
There is now clear, published and unequivocal evidence both in this country and Australia that plain packs would protect children. Research shows our young people are incredibly brand savvy but find plain packs much less desirable and attractive.
Large-scale research in the UK has demonstrated that even after advertising is banned, branding continues to drive teen smoking and that awareness of packaging and new pack design is a key element of this ongoing marketing.
Crucially, plain packs would also end the myth that some cigarettes are less harmful than others. Labelling cigarettes as 'low-tar' light or mild was banned in 2003 but the brands still remain. Clear research shows adults and young people think cigarettes in light coloured packs such as silver and blue are less harmful, less addictive and more suitable for new smokers compared with packs with red logos.
Tobacco smoke contains around 4,000 chemicals, 70 of which are known to cause cancer. Increasingly these products are gift-wrapped with gorgeous pink and green hues and shiny holograms like something far less toxic. Silver sliding packs that look like iPods, cigarettes that would appeal to young Goths, purple packs shaped like eye shadow, and even one brand with logos that some people have commented resemble Lego – these are just some of the cigarettes now on our shelves.
Against rising rates of female lung cancer, brands boasting of being "super slim" and "designed in Paris" only exploit female myths around smoking and staying slim. It is frightening when teenage girls say they think there’s less "bad stuff" in these cigarettes because pink slims look so thin and nice.
The industry needs to replace the 81,000 people in this country who die from smoking each year and the many more who quit. Sadly, most new smokers are children, inhaling killer products which end up killing one in two long term users. Teen smokers don't tend to realise they are addicted until it is too late, sowing the seeds of more people spending years on our hospital wards.
This is not the start of some slippery slope that will lead to alcohol or fatty foods being singled out too. Tobacco is unique – it is the only legal product which kills half its users when used as directed, which is why it is subject to much tighter regulation that any other consumer product.
Let's also dispel the myth that plain packs will be easier to counterfeit. They will not be plain at all but designed in a way using colours and graphics that deter young people rather than attract, making them less of a badge of honour to be passed around the playground or the park. "Skanky and horrible – not something you'd want to show your mates" as one 18-year-old male smoker recently put it.
Plain packaging is not about stopping existing smokers but everything to do with protecting children. It is supported by 80% of people if there is evidence it will deter children. It is supported by organisations like the British Medical Association and Royal College of Physicians, Cancer Research UK and British Heart Foundation.
Some lobbyists have claimed that plain packaging will make no difference, while also claiming exactly the opposite, that plain packaging will ruin local retailers. There are no grounds to believe either position. The deterrent effect of plain packaging means that tobacco sales should decline gradually, but not immediately, with the main effect being to reduce the number of young people becoming new smokers.
When the tobacco industry knows a particular measure will reduce smoking in the future you can usually hear it scream. But if brands did not attract customers, why would so much time and money be spent on them?
Despite what certain think tanks would opine, the evidence is very clear that plain packaging would be a powerful and popular measure. Clear vested interests must not be allowed to undermine progressive health policy that is clearly needed, wanted, workable and in the public interest.
Andy Lloyd is media, communications and social marketing manager for Fresh, the UK's first dedicated programme set up in the north-east of England to tackle the worst rates of smoking related illness and death.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.