In March, the Health Secretary, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, and his team called
for the number of people dying prematurely in England to be reduced. Introducing
standard tobacco packs would help reduce premature death and there are health, economic
and moral reasons for it.
The document outlining their call to action, Living Well for
Longer, contains a
fairly ordinary sentence that is probably in every health document written
since the ‘60s: “Tobacco use is
the single biggest behavioural risk factor for premature death”.
Perhaps an ordinary sentence, but an extraordinary statistic. Shouldn’t
it still shock us that thousands of people die from their habit every year,
many in their middle age? To put that ‘ordinary’
statement in context, smoking kills five times more people than road accidents,
overdoses, murder, suicide and HIV all put together in the UK.
A report in The Lancet showed that
the UK’s health performance over the past 20 years has declined relative to 14
EU countries, Australia, Canada, Norway and USA over. Why? The study confirms that
tobacco is a key reason behind the UK’s worsening relative performance – smoking
‘remains the nation’s leading
risk factor for ill-health.’
So, why wouldn’t we do all we could to stop our children from starting
Almost everyone – smokers and non-smokers – hate the idea of their children
starting to smoke. We all know how hard it can be to give up cigarettes. Most of
us know people whose health suffered due to smoking. And some of us know people who have died as a
result of their addiction to tobacco.
The death toll caused by smoking is phenomenal. Smoking causes an
estimated 100,000 deaths a year in the UK including one in four cancer deaths.
As the Government continues to take decisions about where and how to
make savings, the cost-effectiveness of prevention strategies must be part of
the discussion as well as the societal costs. And the economic argument is
strong. Policy Exchange’s 2010 report Cough Up: Balancing tobacco income and
costs in society says it all: “It is a popular myth that smoking is a net contributor to the
economy – our research finds that every single cigarette smoked costs the
country 6.5 pence”. The report also says although tobacco tax in the UK is relatively high compared to other
countries, cigarettes are much more affordable today than they were in the
1990s because tobacco duty rates have failed to keep pace with rises in income.
Taxation of tobacco contributes £10 billion to HM Treasury annually; however, they
calculated that the costs to the UK from smoking are much greater at £13.74
billion. Every cigarette smoked is costing us money. These costs include not
only the cost of treating smokers on the NHS (£2.7 billion) but also the loss
in productivity from smoking breaks (£2.9 billion) and increased absenteeism
(£2.5 billion); the cost of cleaning up cigarette butts (£342 million); the
cost of smoking related house fires (£507 million), and also the loss in
economic output from the deaths of smokers (£4.1 billion) and passive smokers
As a country, we have so much to be proud of when it comes to tackling
tobacco. The UK is a global pioneer in the area of research into the
devastating impact of tobacco.
It was UK researchers who first made the definitive link between
smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s. And it was UK researchers who showed
beyond doubt the risks of smoking and the benefits of quitting, helping to save
millions of lives. It was the world-renowned research by Sir Richard Doll, Sir
Richard Peto and others that showed that half of all regular smokers will die
early as a result of their tobacco addiction, losing on average ten years of
It’s vital that research continues into finding new treatments for
cancer patients and improving the outcome for patients whose health suffers
from tobacco. But, just as importantly, we must also look for ways to stop
people getting cancer in the first place. One of the best ways to do that is to
stop children from starting to smoke.
The UK is on the right track in helping to reducing tobacco addiction.
For the vast majority of smokers, this addiction begins in childhood, with 8 in
10 smokers starting before they turn 19.
Cigarettes are no longer advertised on TV, on billboards or on Formula
One cars. Cigarette vending machines are gone. Large shops can no longer openly
display tobacco and smaller shops will follow suit in 2015. These measures help
stop tobacco companies from having their lethal product as being seen and
marketed as regular and harmless. Standardising packs is effectively closing a
loophole in the advertising ban – glitzy packets are
one of the last ways the tobacco industry can still market its lethal products
and research shows that the striking logos and distinctive designs make
cigarettes more appealing to children. This is not about 'the nanny state' and
it's not about stopping the freedoms of adult smokers. It's about giving
children one less reason to start smoking in the first place.
And things are improving. Half as many children aged 11-15 start
smoking as they did only 15 years ago. But
this is still far too many. Every year in the UK, over 200,000 children under
16 take up the deadly habit.
Teens say “they look cool”. About trainers. About phones. About their
favourite singer. They also say it about cigarette packs.
Many people who don’t smoke, or who haven’t smoke for years, are surprised
when they see the glitzy designs used on cigarette packs. Research shows that
cigarette brands don’t just look attractive – they use tried and tested
marketing techniques to suggest aspiration, excitement, being cool and
sophisticated. Have a look at the variety next time you’re in your local shop.
Brands aiming to attract women have long, slim cigarettes with glamorous
names and chic packaging. Others have a rugged, macho image aimed at the boys.
In an age when any parent tries to teach their children about the dangers of
smoking the packs are sending a very different message.
The solution is to make all packs look the same – a murky colour with large
picture warnings front and back. Leading experts say this will make cigarettes
far less attractive to young people. The public agree – a YouGov poll shows that public backing the policy by three to one.
The same polling has shown there is strong public support for
standardised packaging – 85% of people support action to reduce young people
who start smoking and 63% of people support the introduction of standardised
packaging (with only 16% opposed).
The Government consultation closed last summer on this and people from
every constituency in the country showed their support for standard packs –
including 108 people in my constituency who took the time to respond in favour.
The tobacco industry says standard packs won’t work but if they really
believe that, why have they spent so much on fighting it? Also, the Advertising
Standards Authority (ASA) recently ruled the tobacco industry’s adverts on
standardised packaging to be misleading and unsubstantiated.
International experts say existing packs are so easy to forge they
already have covert markings. And with these markings, there is no reason why
plain packs would be easier to forge. Health minister Anna Soubry said in
Health Questions recently: “far from being a counterfeiter's dream, the packets
produced in Australia would clearly be a nightmare here. A variety of colours,
watermarks and holograms, and all manner of other things, can be attached to
them, which is why they are described as "standardised" rather than ‘plain’.”
Ferry, a Trading Standards officer with thirty years experience, has said “The tobacco industry claims that plain, standardised
packaging would result in a rise in illegal tobacco sales, and make it easier
to produce counterfeit versions of well known brands. I can say, hand on heart,
as an experienced Trading Standards officer, that the evidence to support these
claims simply doesn’t stand up”.
For all of us who know someone who might have lived longer if they
hadn’t smoked – and for those who don’t want their children to start – we must
get rid of these. Putting tobacco in plain, standardised packs is the right
step to take. It’s a move that will give millions of children one less reason
to start smoking.