Mark Field is the Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster. Follow Mark on Twitter.
Perhaps predictably as MP for Cities of London & Westminster I am unashamedly pro-business. For the UK to emerge from the serious economic malaise that has impacted us all since 2008, we must prioritise global trade and economic growth. Liberating businesses from unnecessary and deeply damaging regulation, enabling them to compete, flourish and expand, resulting in all the benefits we know that follow, must be a core component of our economic strategy.
As everyone is aware the government, at the behest of the ever-vocal and influential health lobby, is considering the introduction of plain packaging for the nation’s tobacco industry. I believe this is an unjustifiable step and would create an unsettling precedent – the State prohibiting the producers of a legal product to use its legally-protected and valuable branding. This is a serious challenge to all those who believe in free markets, enterprise and economic system of capitalism. It should be resisted by all Conservatives.
But first, let me be clear. I believe tobacco is an addictive, legal drug for adults. It is perfectly right that it is illegal to sell tobacco to minors (though in passing it is worth noting that our coalitions partners would allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote but not purchase cigarettes – the age restriction for tobacco having risen from sixteen in recent years). I accept also that tobacco smoking is subject to commensurate restrictions and regulation. No one should sensibly wish children to smoke or be encouraged to take up the habit and I believe that all reasonable measures should continue to be taken to discourage, educate and ultimately prevent those below the legal age from taking up smoking. However I also believe passionately in freedom of choice; the decision whether or not to smoke should remain that of the informed adult, without gratuitous interference from the State.
Whilst I recognise that there are genuine public health issues around smoking, we must accept that tobacco products are widely and legally available. If that is the case, they must be afforded certain basic commercial freedoms. Tobacco is already one of the most highly regulated products in the world. The introduction of plain packaging would most certainly amount to a regulation too far and the so-called “denormalisation” of tobacco is not a sufficiently valid policy decision to justify such action.
According to a survey by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales in late 2011, the number of companies who consider the UK to be “business friendly” has dropped from 50 per cent to 44 per cent. Despite the Coalition’s admirable goal of reducing the vast and costly regulatory burden placed on business – for example, through the ‘One In One Out’ policy – new and unnecessary red tape continues to appear from the corridors of Whitehall. I fear that we are about to see the emergence of a new regulation which should be stopped in its tracks.
The Department of Health is due shortly to launch a consultation on the packaging of tobacco products. We shall have to await the detail naturally, but the Department’s original consideration of the issue already appears to have settled upon a single option going forward, namely that of plain or generic packaging. In this way any distinguishing colours or branding would be prohibited. I fear this type of meddling will only fan the growing flames of anti-business rhetoric, at the very time that Conservatives should be dousing them.
Any decision by the Coalition Government must be unequivocally evidence-based. To contemplate making such a significant measure, the evidence base must be rock-solid and reliable, with a guarantee that it will have the outcome intended. Such an evidential base does not warrant this draconian measure. Given that plain packaging has not been implemented anywhere in the world but is being introduced in Australia at the end of this year, surely it makes sense to see how this experiment works first, before following their lead. Any decision must categorically not be made on the basis of who shouts the loudest nor which side of the debate is able to muster the largest number of automated email responses.
In addition, one has to question why we are rushing into this consultation when a ban on the display of tobacco products in shops – which I opposed in the lobbies of the House of Commons – has only just come into force (6 April) for large shops and is due to come into force on 6 April 2015 for smaller shops. The display ban will place yet another burden on already hard-pressed retailers. Would it not be more sensible to examine the evidence as to whether this works first before we leap onto the bandwagon of yet more regulation?
The enforced introduction of plain packaging would infringe fundamental legal rights routinely afforded to international business, erode British intellectual property and brand equity and would create a dangerous precedent for the future of commercial free speech.
I suspect that plain packaging will result in other sorts of negative impacts, including the increased health threat posed by counterfeit tobacco, the encouragement of smuggled products and damaging competition. Indeed, the Treasury is already losing around £3 billion a year from tobacco that has evaded UK duty; criminal gangs operating a contraband supply chain at the expense of legitimate businesses. All of this could result in a potential loss of investment and jobs that goes way beyond the tobacco manufacturing sector.
I have a suspicion that many of the comments thread on this piece will accuse me of being a mouthpiece of so-called ‘Big Tobacco’. However I contend that we Conservatives should not be pandering to well-funded, lobbying organisations in pursuit of their own goals and agendas, without careful consideration of both sides of the argument. We need to look at all the evidence and consider the wider consequences on business trust.