UK: Government condemned for bowing to tobacco industry over plain packs

Author credit: Marita Hefler and Stan Shatenstein

On 2 May, the Sun newspaper reported that the UK government had decided to abandon cigarette plain packaging legislation. An announcement about the legislation had been widely tipped to be included in the Queen’s speech at the start of the next parliamentary session on 8 May.

No other media outlets initially reported the decision to drop the policy, leading to confusion about whether the report was correct. However, in the face of a surge of support for the tobacco-friendly UK Independence Party (UKIP) and tobacco industry pressure, it appears that the government has decided to put the tobacco lobby ahead of public health.

Jamie Doward in The Guardian reports that the move comes after tobacco industry representatives met with health department officials and threatened that the plan would result in thousands of jobs going abroad. Details reported in the article of the industry’s campaign against the proposal show it took lessons from the failed Australian campaign, and was in part masterminded by Australian lobbyist Lynton Crosby, who has close ties with Australia’s conservative opposition Liberal Party. While the measure will still be implemented in Scotland, dropping it elsewhere in the UK is likely to be divisive with the government, as the Liberal Democrats are strong supporters of plain packaging.

Other coverage of the decision has been justifiably scathing:

“The tobacco industry argues that there is no evidence that plain packs discourage young people from starting to smoke. But inspection of tobacco industry documents released as a result of lawsuits reveals that the industry has been preparing for the battle for at least a quarter of a century. It will deny it, but the tobacco industry understands how brands lure in young smokers. It needs this new generation to replace the older one that it is killing. The UK government has a mandate to improve the health of its citizens. Last week, it failed them.” [Editorial. Smoking: the government’s cowardly surrender to the tobacco lobby, The Observer]

“I don’t blame the tobacco firms. Death is their business. When BAT says, after exhausting its arguments, that “We will take every action possible to protect our brands, the rights of our companies to compete as legitimate commercial businesses selling a legal product, and the interests of our shareholders”, I almost admire its dedication to cash. Yet the British government, theoretically dedicated to the health of its citizens, has a duty not to sink to lobbyists… It attacks the habits of the poor, but does nothing helpful. As ever with this government, hollow rhetoric will do.” [Tanya Gold, Death is tobacco companies’ business, The Guardian]

“The statement, attributed to a Whitehall source, describing plain packaging as “nothing to do with the Government’s key purpose” is extraordinary. The health of the people is surely the highest purpose of government, so it is chilling to hear that the Coalition does not consider the prevention of ill health and premature mortality to be part of its role.” [Letter signed by 155 health professionals. Plain cigarette packets, The Telegraph]