Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Plain Cigarette Packaging

Australia (which BFTF is always minded to pronounce as Auuussstrraaaaliaaaa in the style of a famous 1980s BT advert) recently introduced draft legislation that would remove all branding from cigarette packaging as part of efforts to reduce the level of smoking in the country.

The response of the tobacco industry was to launch a multi-million dollar campaign against the changes. Simon Chapman (Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, Australia) has summarised the arguments of the tobacco industry before, very easily, demolishing them in a article in the New Scientist. In essence, the tobacco industry suggests that :

a) there is "no real evidence" to support the policy
b) Use of plain packaging would represent a "seizure of their intellectual property"
c) Plain packaging would result in a rise in counterfeit cigarettes

This is of relevance to the UK because the Government here is also considering similar legislation. A government report earlier this year (report earlier this year ("Healthy Lives, Healthy People") contained a number of disturbing statements suggesting that the government was taking the views of the tobacco industry seriously.

In turn, this has provoked BFTF into writing the following message (with slight amendments as required) to both Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health (web form here) and to Stephen Williams MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health (email :

Dear Mr Williams
I would like to thank the Government and the APPG on Smoking and Health for setting targets for smoking reduction (as outlined in the Healthy Lives, Healthy People report of 9th March this year) and hope that you are able to achieve the reductions aimed for.

One aspect that does cause concern, however, related to proposals for plain cigarette packaging. . .

I note that the “Healthy Lives, Healthy People” report expresses concern regarding the efficacy of plain packaging, the increased risk of counterfeiting, and the issue of “competition, trade and legal implications”. Simon Shapman (professor of public health at the University of Sydney, Australia) has discussed some of these issues in a recent article in New Scientist (“Time to pack it in”, 30th April Issue, P22). As you are no doubt aware, Australia has released draft legislation to remove branding from cigarette packaging.

Regarding the efficacy of plain packaging he points out that, in Australia, Tobacco companies have poured some $10million into “a proxy campaign against the plan. . . from the hitherto unknown ‘Alliance of Australian Retailers’”. He adds that many Australians are wondering “if it won’t work, why is the industry bothering to waste its money campaigning to hard against it?”

Perhaps most persuasive are the words of a 2008 cover story in the Trade Journal ‘Tobacco Journal International’ which simply, and presumably accurately, said “Plain Packaging can kill your business”

I could go on – and on – regarding this point, but I hope that is not necessary.

Mr Williams, I would not wish to insult your intelligence by pointing out that the world is awash with counterfeiters who can mimic Levi’s jeans, Rolex watches and even entire Apple Computer Stores. They are unlikely to find the manufacture of a small cardboard box graced with a Silk Cut logo a particularly difficult hurdle to clear.

Legal Issues
According to Mark Davison, professor of law at Monash University in Victoria regards the intellectual property argument of the tobacco industry as being, “so weak, it’s non-existent” and that while WTO rules prevent others from using a trademark, they do not provide an absolute right to use it yourself.

In summary, I would encourage the APPG on Smoking and Health to resist the misleading arguments of the tobacco industry and submit legislation for plain packaging at the earliest opportunity.

A message was also sent out to a number of local mosques suggesting that this was an area where common cause could be found with the wider society in achieving a social good and that the mosques may wish to send similar messages to lobby for plain packaging on cigarettes. Doing so would not only help to achieve this social good but would also demonstrate to the Muslim community that this kind of action is very much part of being an active British Muslim.

It does not really need stating that politicians are much more likely to pay attention to a community organisation (such as a mosque) than they are to individuals.

Dear Reader, perhaps there is an issue of some kind that is concerning you - if so, perhaps you would like to consider directing your complaints towards the people who can make difference (MP's, organisations etc). . .

UPDATE (12 SEP 11)
Recently received a response from the Department of Health which stated that the Government had:
"taken full account of all the concerns raised by all those with an interest in this issue – retailers, the tobacco industry, as well as public health and NHS practitioners and organisations".

It goes on to say that the Government believes that the changes strike the right balance between:
"the expected public health benefits in the long term, with mitigating burden on business at the current time.

Regarding the issue of plain packaging, the response merely repeats the Governments position by stating:
"The Government has an open mind on plain packaging and will explore the competition, trade and legal implications and the likely impact on the illicit tobacco market of options around tobacco packaging."

Overall, the response does not give me a sense that there has been any process of engagement, or that the specific comments made by BFTF regarding plain packaging have been taken on board.

UPDATE (10 SEP 12)
With the legislation having been in place for several months now, BFTF wondered what the effect had been, so asked the DoH and also a local supermarket. Feedback hopefully coming soon.

UPDATE (03 OCT 12)
Recently received a response from the DoH:
"The legislation ending permanent open public displays of tobacco products is being introduced because there is evidence that tobacco displays in shops can promote smoking by young people and undermine the resolve of adults who are trying to quit. People who smoke and are addicted to nicotine will continue to be able to buy cigarettes and tobacco in the normal way. There is, therefore, unlikely to be a large immediate effect on tobacco sales. The aim is to help to protect future generations of children from unsolicited promotion of tobacco through product displays.

You may also be aware that the legislation will not be implemented in the majority of smaller shops until April 2015. Clearly this phasing will also delay the overall impact of the legislation. However, you may also be interested to know that the legislation includes a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to evaluate the effect of the legislation by April 2020."
Update Jan 2015
It's now over THREE YEARS since this post first started to cover the issue of plain cigarette packing, and it sickening that the UK government STILL hasn't introduced the relevant legislation - a tardiness that has not been seen in many other areas of Government health policy.

So exasperated has the UK's medical community become that some 4,000 health professionals have recently signed an open letter to the PM and Health Secretary concerned that PP legislation will not be introduced before the election, as had been expected.

Five times as many signed the letter as had signed a similar open letter supporting a ban on smoking in cars, a measure that the government, in contrast, will actually introduce.

The letter points out that:
"over half a million children have taken up smoking since the government first announced it would consult on plain standardised packaging of cigarette packs in 2011 and every day hundreds more join them”.

and also dismisses government claims that delays are due to the EU.

Meanwhile, in Australia, recent research looking at the effect of the 2012 introduction of plain cigarette (PP) packaging in Australia (see here) concludes that :

"Since implementation of PP along with larger warnings, support among Australian smokers has increased. Support is related to lower addiction, stronger beliefs in the negative health impacts of smoking, and higher levels of quitting activity."

The report also notes that support from smokers to the packaging changes has increased from 28% before the change to 49% today, with the strongest support was among smokers who intended to quit.

Co-author David Hammond comments that:
"The study adds to a growing evidence base that will reassure regulators that the sky will not fall if they introduce plain packaging, as the tobacco companies have suggested".