Comment: Plain cigarette packaging is mad and dangerous

Taxpayers' money is being spent lobbying for a packaging ban which may damage people's health.

By Stephanie Lis

Earlier this week the Public Health Research Consortium published "Plain tobacco packaging: a systematic review". This independent review forms part of the consultation on plain cigarette packaging and admits that there is a pervasive lack of evidence: "Many of the studies use hypothetical scenarios, and are therefore not truly able to test how individuals would react or behave if plain packaging was to be introduced". Decisions which will ostracise a minority group (consumers of a legal product) should be based on fact. Moreover, the legislation should be based on a genuine necessity, which in this instance simply does not exist.

A particular emphasis has been put on preventing young people smoking with some arguing that branding on cigarette packets is appealing to under-18s. This lacks any tangible evidence, but is also incredibly patronising. If the government is concerned about children smoking, as it should be, they should focus on education and enforcement of existing laws. Cracking down on retailers selling to children and a hardening of punishment for proxy buying would be much more effective ways of achieving this, rather than curtailing both the rights of consumers of a legal product and basic free market principles.

Aside from the lack of evidence, the effects of plain packaging would have serious ramifications for the black market and organised crime. Counterfeiting is already a substantial and growing issue, with imitation tobacco accounting for 65% of cigarettes seized within the EU. This is when there are over 200 different brands available. When there is just one standardised format, packets will become much easier to replicate. Counterfeit cigarettes contain dangerous and unregulated ingredients and can cause serious health issues. Moreover, the Treasury would lose tax revenue.

One final issue is the lack of objectivity from the government at the outset of this consultation. Health secretary Andrew Lansley last week stated that tobacco companies have "no business" in the UK, a ridiculous statement from our allegedly 'pro-business' government. More worryingly, it has recently emerged that taxpayers' money is being spent to lobby for the branding ban. In south west England pro-plain packaging billboards have appeared which are funded by the local Primary Care Trust, by way of the NHS Strategic Health Authority, the Department of Health and ultimately, you – the taxpayer. This is completely unacceptable. A consultation should be balanced and start from a fair and equitable position. Moreover, this is just one area of the UK. Speculatively, if these levels were spent across the country by all PCTs, it would amount to £5 million of taxpayers' money.

The government should be concerning themselves with far more important issues. Surely Lansley should be focusing on his contentious NHS reforms rather than prioritising a marginal issue – based on nonexistent evidence – which will alienate a minority of reasonable consumers. At the very least the government should wait until they are in a position to evaluate both the effect of plain packaging in Australia and the effects of British initiatives such as graphic tobacco health warnings and the imminent display ban. If we rush through plain packaging legislation we will never be able assess the impact of various strategies.

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, will bolster the black market 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.

Stephanie Lis is campaign manager for The Freedom Association

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