Smoke and mirrors

Philip HuntPhil Hunt on our new proposals to protect young people from cynical, tobacco packaging

“The evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers, so it makes sense to consider having less attractive packaging”, so said Andrew Lansley in November 2010. In doing so, the then Health Secretary, derided the tactics of big tobacco corporations and their clinquant cigarette cases. 

Mr Lansley continued in this vein at the launch of a public consultation on standardised packaging last April, where he boldly stated: “We don't want to work in partnership with the tobacco companies because we are trying to arrive at a point where they have no business in this country”.

His sentiments were echoed by Dr Daniel Poulter MP, today stationed in the Department of Health, who last summer wrote: “introducing plain packaging for cigarettes could certainly help to reduce the brand marketing appeal of cigarettes to teenagers, and most importantly, help to stop young people from developing a smoking habit that can only shorten their lives”.

Then there’s Anna Soubry, the Public Health minister – a vocal, apparently stubborn, proponent of standardised packaging. So when Soubry stepped up to the Commons Despatch Box last Friday to announce the effective shelving of the government’s plans, whilst simultaneously claiming that she would “never give into pressure” when making decisions such as this, it was not surprise that greeted her statement but disbelief.

Not only is this a disastrous decision in terms of people’s health, it also exposes the links between the government and tobacco company lobbyists. Lynton Crosby, David Cameron’s elections co-ordinator, has a history of working on behalf of big tobacco firms in his native Australia. And the fact that, even now, his lobbying firm are ‘advising’ Philip Morris International is a clear conflict of interest. It is no surprise therefore, that the government has dragged its heels on releasing notes of a meeting held between the company and Department of Health officials six months ago.

The cowardly and humiliating u-turn on cigarette packaging, whilst a clear indictment of the Coalition’s unsavoury submission to the power of big business lobbying, also demonstrates a wider failure on public health. In three years, we have seen a half-hearted reliance on nudges and winks, a failed Responsibility Deal, a cancelled flu publicity campaign, and their general ‘blame the individual’ approach, all of which draws the sad conclusion that Ministers think public health is none of their business.

Nevertheless, we will seek to right the wrong of last week’s announcement with an amendment to the Children and Families Bill – which starts its Committee stage in the Lords in the autumn. We will propose introducing a provision into the Bill for standardised packaging of tobacco products, to protect young people from the cynically-crafted designs that encourage them to take up smoking.

Time and time again, health ministers have acknowledged the evidence that will support our proposal, including the fact that young people are by far the most likely age group to start smoking. So we now urge the government to say what has changed: the facts, or the election strategist?

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is a Shadow Health Minister and Labour’s Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 16th July 2013


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