Bob Blackman is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Harrow East.
It is now likely that Parliament will vote on the introduction of standardised (“plain”) packaging of cigarettes and other tobacco products before the next election. The regulations needed under the Children and Families Act to bring the policy into effect are about to be published for consultation. There are still some Conservatives who doubt the need for them, but I do not share their concerns.
I must declare a personal interest here: both my parents died prematurely from smoking related disease. I am certainly motivated by that sad fact to try to prevent that tragedy from happening to another generation of children and young people. Although we have made great progress in reducing smoking rates, around one in five adults in the country still smoke, and about 80,000 people in England are still dying too soon every year as a direct result.
The great majority of them started smoking as children, and for many years the tobacco industry knowingly designed its advertising, branding and packaging to appeal to teenagers. Smoking is still by far the most common cause of premature death in our country, and indeed across the world. It seems to me entirely proper, therefore, that it should be a matter of concern to our Government, and indeed to everyone who believes that one of the duties of governments is to protect the public from threats to their health and wellbeing.
This Government has already rightly implemented reforms to try to stop young people from starting to smoke, including the ban on retail displays of cigarettes and on cigarette vending machines. Now it is seeking to end all marketing of cigarettes through pack design – essentially the last means by which the tobacco industry can try to use brand identity to recruit new smokers. Standardised packs are not “plain” in any meaningful sense. But they are honest: they will consist of large graphic and text warnings of the harm that smoking can do, and advice on how to get help in giving up.
To a large extent, tobacco control has ceased to be a political issue between the major parties, most important tobacco legislation has been introduced with the backing of a powerful cross-Party coalition. I understand that this has perhaps made some Conservatives a little nervous. It is of course absolutely right that, as Conservatives, we demand good evidence before we resort to legislation. We should only use the law to prevent harm when we can be confident that the harm is serious, and that the proposed remedy is likely to work.
For that very reason, the Government appointed Sir Cyril Chantler, an eminent paediatrician, to review the public health case for standardised packaging. His excellent report is available here, and I would urge anyone with an interest in this subject to read it. It is a model of how a review of this kind should be conducted. He concludes that:
“the body of evidence shows that standardised packaging, in conjunction with the current tobacco control regime, is very likely to lead to a modest but important reduction over time on the uptake and prevalence of smoking and thus have a positive impact on public health”.
Sir Cyril also rejected the most common public tobacco industry argument against standardised packaging – that it will increase the level of illicit trade in tobacco. This Government has in fact been very successful in reducing illicit trade, and co-operation between Border Force, HMRC, police and trading standards officers should ensure that we continue to bear down on the problem. All the key security features on existing cigarette packs will also be present on standardised packs, including covert anti-counterfeit marks and alphanumeric codes, which will be further developed as the UK and other countries introduce the international tracking and tracing system for tobacco products to which we are now committed.
I have heard it suggested that this piece of legislation is “not Conservative”, as if our Party had no interest in, or record of, public health reforms. In fact, our history in this respect compares well with any other party, from the original Public Health Act of 1872, substantially the work of one of the greatest Conservatives, Benjamin Disraeli, through the Clean Air Act of 1956 to the various tobacco control measures introduced by the current Government, which have led to the UK being rated as the leading country in Europe on tobacco control. Isn’t that a record of which we should be proud? As Disraeli pointed out:
“the health of the people is really the foundation on which all their happiness and all their powers as a state depend.”
What is not Conservative, I would suggest, is the extreme and antique nineteenth century liberal position that demands no interference with the claimed “freedom” of companies to behave as they wish, even if they are knowingly trying to addict young people to products that will lead many of them to serious illness and premature death. The “right” to poison your customers is not one that we should be seeking to defend. I believe that most of my Conservative Parliamentary colleagues agree with me. We shall put that proposition to the test when we vote on the standardised packaging regulations.