Cigarette packets: the case for a new law

Peter KellnerPresident
April 25, 2013, 8:49 AM GMT+0

YouGov President, Peter Kellner, discusses the government's bill to require tobacco manufacturers to sell cigarettes standard, olive-coloured packs with prominent health warnings

Let me declare my interest at the outset. ASH, the anti-smoking campaign, is a client of YouGov; I am also a trustee. So, for once, this blog goes beyond data analysis. It includes YouGov research, but also sets out my personal views.

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The reason for doing this now is that government ministers are finalising their plans for next month’s Queen’s Speech. This is when we shall find out which new laws they propose. One of the candidates is a bill to require tobacco manufacturers to sell cigarettes standard, olive-coloured packs with prominent health warnings. The brand name would be printed in modest, standard type. The days of bright, eye-catching packs would be over.

This is an example of what the new packs could look like:

The thinking behind the new law is that it would be a logical extension of reforms over the past 15 years – the ban on cigarette advertising, the banning of smoking in offices, pubs and other indoor public places and, most recently, the ban on displaying cigarettes openly in supermarkets (now in force) and small retailers (on the way).

Over the years, the law has supported a social revolution: far fewer people smoke than a generation ago. Perhaps the biggest challenge now is to discourage teenagers from starting to smoke. De-glamourising smoking is one way to help meet this challenge. Banning bright packs is part of that campaign. Australia has already banned them – successfully fighting a strong legal challenge from the tobacco industry. Will the UK now follow suit?

The issue is in the balance. Last Friday, John Humphrys interviewed Anna Soubry, the (Conservative) Public Health Minister, on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme. This is part of that exchange:

AS: There is work to be done on smoking and that’s the next debate that we’ve got to have.

We’ve had a consultation on what’s called plain, it’s not, it’s very colourful very intricate, but standardised packaging, and there’s a real debate now to be had on whether or not we should introduce it like they have in Australia.

JH: Are you in favour of that?

AS: I am.

JH: So it’s going to happen?

AS: Oh no, it doesn’t mean to say it’s going to happen because we haven’t had the debate. We need now to have that debate. I’ve seen the evidence. I’ve seen the consultation. I’ve been personally persuaded of it, but that doesn’t mean to say that all my colleagues in government on both sides of the house are persuaded, and that’s the debate that we now have to have.

So the consultation is over. The relevant minister is convinced. The Liberal Democrats support a new law – indeed they were the first major party to embrace it, back in 2009. Yet the issue remains in the balance. So let me help ministers by setting out the pros and cons.

First the pros:

1. Reform would be popular. Last month YouGov showed respondents the above picture and asked whether they would support or oppose a new law ‘requiring tobacco to be sold in plain standardizing packaging with the product name in standard lettering’. 61% support the plan while just 14% oppose it. 21% said they neither supported nor opposed it; 5% said ‘don’t know’. These are comparable to the levels of support ahead of past measures to bear down on cigarette smoking; each time support for reform has gone even higher once reform has been enacted. There has never been the public backlash that some feared and parts of the tobacco lobby predicted.

2. Reform would be cheap. It’s an ideal measure for austere times, when ministers look for ways to make life better without spending money.

3. There is a real prospect that, over time and in conjunction with other reforms, fewer teenagers would take up smoking. We would become a healthier nation.

4. Of all the reforms that have been enacted or proposed, this is the least disruptive. It does not deprive newspapers of advertising revenues; it does not force smokers to change their habits in pubs or offices; it does not make retailers alter the way they lay out their wares. These things have already happened; the ‘civil liberty’ arguments of the tobacco industry have been rejected; democracy and freedom have survived. The latest measure is more modest than any of these and should cause less fuss.

Now the case for the antis:

1. The tobacco industry doesn’t like it.

And that’s about it. As in the past, the industry has been highly imaginative in trying to link their opposition to arguments about civil liberties, intellectual property rights, tobacco smuggling, free trade and unemployment. The bottom line is that, as for the past half century, they have been fighting a rearguard action to defend their right to kill their customers.

In the next few weeks we shall find out whether the ministers find the pro- or anti-arguments more persuasive.

See the full survey results here

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This blog also appears on the Huffington Post