Nick de Bois is a Secretary of the 1922 Committee and MP for Enfield North.
As the MP representing the diverse outer-London constituency of Enfield North, counterfeit trade is a major concern. Police and enforcement officials have to be vigilant, and the danger to my constituents of illicit products is obvious. With this in mind, I am concerned at the Public Health Minister’s statement today and what she described as “the direction of travel” after publication of the Chantler Review of standardised packaging of tobacco.
Australia is the only country to have tried the plain packaging experiment. The evidence from there shows that, since its introduction, illicit tobacco has soared to record levels, jumping by 13 per cent in one year and now costing AUD$1.1 billion in lost revenue. The UK is already heavily exposed. As HMRC figures show, the Treasury is already losing as much as £2.9 billion a year in tax revenue to illicit tobacco. Do we really want this added burden at a time when the UK cannot afford it?
More worryingly, do we really want more criminals selling more fake cigarettes to children? What are the implications for my constituents in Enfield North?
Peter Oborne has outlined that he believes a Conservative-led Government should reject such a prohibitionist policy. Personally, I agree that this measure should never have been contemplated in the first place.
The Coalition Government was always very clear that Sir Cyril Chantler had been asked to undertake a review which would only look at any public health impact of such a policy; not the economic, crime and business impact. Jane Ellison, the Minister for Public Health, previously promised, on 22nd January this year, that:
“The Government will consider the wider issues raised by standardised tobacco packaging, including the economic aspects and potential impact on intellectual property, before making a final decision on this policy.”
I trust that this will be robustly examined during the consultation process that the minister has confirmed today.
Ministers should be cautious about introducing a plain packaging policy and should consider all the consequences before making a final decision. There should be all-party support for such an approach given that even Chi Onwurah, the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, said on Newsnight on 26th February that “You have to use facts in order to develop policy.” The evidence from Australia is that, perversely, since plain packaging was introduced smoking rates have not declined (in adults or the young) and that sales of cigarettes – legal and illicit – are now increasing. It is difficult to see why, then, this proposal should be supported. It does not work on any level. Worse, it may not even survive a legal challenge.
Intellectual Property Rights are enshrined in UK and EU law. Senior legal experts and independent analysts have stated that plain packaging would be a deprivation of property, requiring taxpayers to compensate tobacco companies. In this litigious world, we should be wary when there is sufficient measure of doubt that, if proven, may land the taxpayer with a big bill to the benefit of the tobacco companies. And that’s before we even consider being drawn into the WTO legal dispute between Australia and several other nations challenging the legality of plain packaging legislation.
I am not enthusiastic about defending the current status quo on the grounds of business impact on the tobacco industry. I would prefer that people did not smoke, and that those employed in the industry were able to work elsewhere. Indeed, although I sympathise with hard pressed newsagents and retailers over the possible loss of revenue from plain packaging, that is not my argument for opposing this policy.
I hope that this Conservative-led Government will not now ignore all the rules of good governance and introduce bad policy unsupported by hard evidence, and which goes against Conservative values and philosophy. Rather than take a reckless risk, the UK should look to the German example of education campaigns which have been proven to reduce smoking rates amongst the young by more than half in a decade. We should continue to engage in public health programs that lead to better decision making by the individual and cut smoking. Let’s face it, significant progress has been made in reducing smoking even amongst the young as speaker after speaker pointed out in today’s statement. Instead of introducing a policy that might make us feel like we are “doing something”, let’s actually build on the concrete progress made to date with effective public health programs.
That would be a Conservative way forward that will genuinely help my constituents by delivering a sustainable reduction in smoking.