Will the UK government go ahead with standardised tobacco packaging or not?


 Deborah Arnott

Chief Executive, ASH UK

It seems like a straightforward question, but as is often the case there isn’t a simple answer. The UK parliament has passed primary legislation which allows it to introduce standardised packaging by regulation, but the government hasn’t yet made a decision to go ahead.

This primary legislation is a necessary but not sufficient step towards getting standardised packaging in place. The Government still has to decide whether to introduce the regulations which will bring standardised packaging into effect. The test that it has set itself is set out in the primary legislation and it is entirely appropriate, in line with that used by Australia.

Basically the legislation enables the Health Minister to make regulations for standardised packaging for tobacco products if s/he considers such regulations may be capable of reducing harm or promoting the health and welfare of children under 18. This can include potential benefits to children because of the impact of standardised packaging on adults, and the potential impact of the regulations either on their own or in conjunction with existing regulations on packaging and labelling.  The ways in which regulations might be capable of reducing harm or promoting health and welfare are defined as being any one of the following together or individually (the full amendment can be found here):

  • reducing smoking uptake
  • encouraging quitting
  • preventing relapse
  • reducing the appeal or attractiveness of tobacco products
  • reducing the ability of packaging to mislead consumers
  • reducing the ability of packaging to detract from the impact of health warnings, and
  • having an impact on attitudes, beliefs, intentions and behaviours towards smoking.

Because the UK Government said in spring 2013 that it wanted to see what the impact was in Australia, quite rightly it is carrying out a review before making its decision. That means that in making its decision it can take into consideration the most up to date information about the public health impact in Australia. Sir Cyril Chantler, an eminent paediatrictian, who is carrying out the review is visiting Australia to see for himself and then will report back to the Government by the end of March.

To quote the Health Minister Jane Ellison in parliament on Thursday 28th November 2013 after she had announced that the Government were bringing forward primary legislation on standardised packaging: “If, on receiving Sir Cyril’s review, the Government decide to proceed, that will allow standardised tobacco packaging to be introduced without delay. .. I have looked at the draft schedule, and if the Government were minded to go forward with this policy, I see no reason why it could not be put through before the end of this Parliament.” 

The decision will be taken once Chantler reports, and regulations could be in place if not implemented before the end of the Parliament in spring 2015 when the UK has its next general election. The primary legislation voted on last week was supported by not just the Coalition government but also the Labour opposition.  There was a massive majority; 453 MPs voted in favour with only 24 against. The governments in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also taken the necessary steps to ensure that regulations can cover the whole of the United Kingdom and not just England.

In addition in the same Bill the government has been given powers to introduce regulations to prohibit smoking in cars with children under 18. As with standardised packaging this was originally a backbench motion rather than a Government amendment. The Government allowed a free vote. The majority was 269, which compares with 200 for the UK smokefree legislation in 2006. Subsequently the prime minister’s spokespeople have made clear the government would like to go ahead with the necessary regulations to put this into effect before the next election.

The commitment of the UK parliament to take all measures necessary to reduce the harm caused by smoking is clear, and there is strong support from the public and the health community. We feel confident that after Chantler reports at the end of March the UK government will listen to the evidence and decide to go ahead with standardised packaging.

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