by Martin Dockrell FRSPH
Director of Research & Policy
The Health Secretary has opened a consultation on plain standardised packaging for the tobacco industry, picking up a proposal first mooted by Alan Johnson when he was Labour’s Secretary of State for Health. It is no surprise that the idea receives all party support and strong public support too: the Plain Packs Protect website already has over 40,000 supporters.
A previous consultation received almost 100,000 responses, and 98% of those responding on plain packaging supported the measure. An ASH analysis of the handful of opponents showed many had undisclosed links to the tobacco industry. Nonetheless, the Labour Government felt more evidence was needed to justify action.
Since then the research has piled in. A study ASH published was one among many to show:
- Plain packaging reduces misleading messages to smokers (manufacturers use colours like silver, blue and gold to hint that some brands are less harmful than others, apractice so misleading that labelling brands “light” and “mild” is now illegal)
- Plain packaging gives greater impact to health warnings.
- Most important of all, plain packs are much less attractive to young people.
As with Labour’s tobacco advertising ban almost a decade ago, adult smokers will not have their choice constrained – any who want to will continue to buy their favourite brand – and as with the advertising ban, we can expect to see a steady reduction in the numbers of young people starting to smoke. The only people who will be constrained will be tobacco manufacturers.
Australia has already passed a similar law and will implement it by the end of the year. Needless to say the tobacco industry fought it tooth and nail. Supposed retailer front groups ran election time TV ads against Australia’s Labour party but it was soon discovered that it was the tobacco manufacturers who were paying the bills.
Industry disinformation failed to convince the Australian electorate and legislators. Big Tobacco lost in parliament and is now trying to use trade agreements to overrule the health policy of a sovereign government. Their favourite ploy is to claim that plain packs will be easier to counterfeit. In fact, existing packs are no obstacle to counterfeiters. The truly effective way of stopping fakes is to have invisible markers on the packs. These already exist and will continue.
It is no surprise that they are fighting so hard. Market failure has made UK tobacco companies among the most profitable in the country. Just two companies hold 84% of the UK market and one of them – Imperial Tobacco – made over £3bn profit on just less than £7bn tobacco revenues. The industry knows that one cigarette is much like another and in blind tests smokers struggle to tell them apart.
That makes packaging key to these huge profits because it allows manufacturers to sell premium brands at close to £8 per pack while using the excess profits to cross-subsidise “value brands”, selling for less than £5.50. That way they reduce the incentive for poorer smokers who want to quit. Companies may blame the Chancellor for the cost of smoking but every time the tax goes up they take a little extra for themselves.
The reason all this matters for the left is that the main function of the tobacco market is to redistribute wealth away from the nation’s poorest families in favour of the City’s most profitable companies. And the poor pay for smoking in more ways than one: Smoking rates are so much higher among poorer communities that half the difference in life expectancy between richest and poorest is down to smoking alone. But poor smokers can leap the health gap by quitting. After all, the poorest non-smokers have a better life expectancy than the richest smokers and research by Professor Robert West shows poorer smokers are just as likely to want to quit as rich ones. They are just as likely to try to quit too but they are half as likely to quit successfully.
Will health campaigners succeed this time when we failed under Labour? Not only is the evidence out there now, but popular support has grown. Annual polls show that support had been growing gradually since 2008. This year we changed the question, showing people what a “plain pack” might look like and support leapt up to 62% while opposition melted away to 11%. Even among smokers, for every five who thought it was a bad idea we found six who supported it.