The Government looks to be reconsidering the issue of standardised packs for cigarettes with the announcement of an independent review. An end to the packet racket would be a victory for anti-tobacco campaigners and a blow for Big Tobacco.
Today’s news of an independent review of plain cigarette packaging gives hope to the anti-tobacco community that standardised packs may not be far away.
Campaigners were frustrated and disappointed when measures to deglamourise cigarette packs were left out of the Queen’s Speech in May. Some saw the hand of Lynton Crosby, then part-time advisor to the PM but also employed by a PR company with the tobacco industry among its clients. The Prime Minister appeared to kick the issue into the long grass, saying: “We need more evidence, we need greater legal certainty”.
But the issue has refused to go away. As has happened before with other anti-tobacco measures, such as the advertising ban and smokefree public places, campaigners found cross-party allies in the House of Lords. Amendments proposed to the Children and Families Bill by Labour’s Lord Faulkner, Lib Dem Baroness Tyler, Cross-bencher Baroness Finlay and Conservative Lord McColl would allow the Secretary of State for Health to put an end to high-gloss, tempting packaging for good and were set to be voted on before Christmas.
The Government might have accepted a defeat in the Lords. But what would have swung number 10 on this occasion is the maths in the Commons. Although the Coalition Government has a majority here (unlike the Lords), I imagine the Whips – both Liberal Democrat and Conservative – would have cautioned number 10 about their ability to deliver their numbers through the right lobby. And weighing on their minds too would be the possibility of another media debate about whether the Coalition Government puts the interests of Big Tobacco or public health first.
The independent review, which will be led by Sir Cyril Chantler, will scrutinise evidence from Australia where standardised packs have been in place for a year. Early evidence reported in the BMJ suggests that standardised packs are associated with lower smoking appeal and have created more urgency to quit among adult smokers – interesting since the main objective of standardised packs is not to encourage quit attempts among smokers but to make it less tempting for children to start in the first place.
Every day, around 570 children aged 11-15 start smoking in the UK and, on average, child smokers smoke 36 cigarettes a week. While there are a number of factors that influence them starting – such as smoking in the family or among their friends – studies by Cancer Research UK have shown that they are more attracted to colourful packs.
The Chantler review will report in March. If Government acted quickly, standardised packs could be on the shelves before the General Election, ticking off a big ticket item for the cancer, heart, and respiratory communities – and removing a potential headache for the Prime Minister and Health Secretary.