Martin McKee: Coalition u-turns and how the EU is leading the way on smoking legislation

mcKee_martinIs the UK coalition government losing its touch? It has just revealed how weak it is when faced with demands from its own supporters in big business and, specifically, in the alcohol and tobacco industries. Firstly, it announced a u-turn on the pledge to introduce minimum unit pricing of alcohol made personally by the prime minister when he introduced his government’s alcohol strategy. Then, as if this was not bad enough, it confirmed, as suspected given its absence from the Queen’s Speech, that it would be kicking into the long grass the proposal to require cigarettes to be sold in plain packs. Finally, although this time events were outside its control, a leaked memo from the Office of National Statistics argued for abandoning the collection of data on drinking and smoking rates, ostensibly on the grounds of cost-cutting, but with the obvious added advantage of making it impossible to assess the consequences of the government’s actions.

A few days earlier, the news on public health had been very different. Largely unnoticed by the British media, MEPs in the environment, public health, and food safety department of the European Parliament had voted in favour of much strengthened measures to reduce smoking among young people. In doing so, they demonstrated clearly the importance that they placed on improving the health of Europe’s citizens, a priority obviously not shared by their counterparts in Westminster. The committee’s proposals, which should  be incorporated into a Tobacco Products Directive later this year, envisage strict regulations on cigarette packaging and design, drawing extensively on research, including that revealed in the industry’s own documents, revealing the tactics it uses to induce children to smoke. Packs will have to include graphic warnings covering 75% of the front and the back, and written warnings covering 50% of their sides. It will be illegal to sell cigarettes in packs of less than 20, and loose tobacco in quantities of less than 40g. Slim cigarettes (diameter less than 7.5 mm), and those containing flavours such as menthol, both designed to appeal specifically to young girls, will be banned. Internet sales will be regulated and e-cigarettes, whose images are increasingly being used by tobacco companies to circumvent advertising bans, will be regulated as medicines. This time the tobacco industry was furious. It had spent massive sums in an intensive lobbying exercise, involving about 100 fulltime lobbyists “bombarding” MEPs with material, that had spectacularly backfired.

The inside story of why the UK coalition government performed these u-turns is yet to emerge. However, the publication, in the same week, of the 2013 round of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer should give pause for thought. The results for the UK revealed a “crisis of trust in the political system,” with 67% of those surveyed believing political parties are affected by corruption and 90% believing that the UK is “run by a few big entities acting in their own interests.” It seems unlikely that recent events will do anything to reassure the majority of electors. It should, however, cause them to reflect on whether they should look to their elected representatives in Westminster or in Brussels to place concerns about their health above the interests of a few large corporations.

Martin McKee is professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.