In July this year, the government dismayed medical professionals and the wider public health community by refusing to bring in legislation to require the standardised packaging of cigarettes and tobacco products. In a written statement sneaked out on the last day before the parliamentary recess, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government would wait for the moment the “emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured”. Australia led the world by bringing in standardised packs in December last year.
After the Observer newspaper got hold of internal Philip Morris International documents, it emerged that this was exactly what the industry lobbyists were trying to achieve, believing that waiting to see what happened in Australia would stop any action in the UK for up to three years.
But their triumph may be short lived: a cross party group of Peers (of which I am one) has introduced a standard packs amendment to the Children and Families Bill, which is now in the House of Lords, and we think it has an excellent chance of success.
Standardised packs are not the plain white packs that mendacious industry press adverts would have you believe. Instead they would be carefully designed to be as unattractive to new smokers as possible. They would have strong images of the diseases that smoking causes, as well as NHS contact details for smokers who want to quit.
Why is this an issue of child protection? Because smoking is an addiction that begins in childhood. Two thirds of existing smokers started before they were eighteen years old, and almost two fifths before they were sixteen.
And smoking rates for vulnerable children are truly shocking: more than two thirds of children in residential care smoke. Half of all lifetime smokers will die prematurely from smoking-related disease, more than 100,000 people across the UK every year. Hundreds of thousands more children could have started to smoke before the government considers any further action. That would be great news for the tobacco industry, but awful news for public health.
Tobacco packaging is the last way in which the tobacco industry can advertise and market its lethal products; we have now stopped all conventional advertising and the retail display ban will come into in full effect in 2015.
The industry likes to pretend that packaging is not advertising, but in fact it is very carefully designed to appeal to its target markets. For example, a website pushing Vogue cigarettes, a brand owned by British American Tobacco and aimed at young women, talks about the “all-white box design with a tiny coloured branch and different coloured leaves” which “reflects the romantic essence that is Vogue Cigarettes”.
There is already good evidence that standardised packs work, and new evidence is being published all the time. A systematic review of peer reviewed studies, carried out for the Department of Health and quoted in its own consultation document, found that standard packaging is less attractive, improves the effectiveness of health warnings, reduces mistaken beliefs that some brands are ‘safer’ than others and is therefore likely to reduce smoking uptake amongst children and young people.
Polls show more than 60% support for standardised packs among intending Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour voters. It is a simple policy, easy to introduce and easy to enforce.
Our cross party amendment will be debated in the House of Lords in November, and has strong and very welcome backing from the Labour party. Standard packs are an essential step forwards for tobacco control.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health