The Government has got itself in to an almighty mess on the plain packaging of tobacco. Last year, out of the blue, David Cameron surprised even the Department of Health by announcing a new review of the evidence on plain packaging. Many Conservative supporters were stunned. There was no public demand for it. The public had already made their views known through their responses to the consultation: over 425,000 people had opposed plain packaging, 238,000 were in favour – a resounding majority against. Why would the Government ignore the result of its own consultation?
The Prime Minister’s decision to reignite the debate was strategic. The Government had been outsmarted by Labour in the Lords, when the Opposition threatened to add an enabling amendment on plain packaging to the unrelated Children and Families Bill. In Scotland, meanwhile, the SNP Government was threatening to go it alone on plain packaging. In an attempt to reassert its authority in Westminster and the country as a whole, Cameron responded by effectively adopting Labour/SNP policy.
The Government thus appointed Sir Cyril Chantler, a leading paediatrician, to conduct a further review. Crucially, Sir Cyril was asked to consider only the impact of standardised packaging on public health. Unlike the 2012 consultation, there was to be no assessment of the impact on the economy, illicit trade or consumer interests.
The dice were loaded, and Sir Cyril didn’t disappoint. Last month, following the publication of his report recommending plain packaging, Jane Ellison, the Public Health Minister, announced that the Government was “minded” to introduce legislation that will forcibly remove all graphics, typefaces, and colours that differentiate one brand from another. Accused, wrongly, of making a U-turn on plain packaging last year, the Government is now dancing to the Opposition’s tune based on a report that many people consider to be deeply flawed.
The narrowness of the Chantler Review cannot be ignored, because the repercussions for other branded products – such as alcohol or processed foods and drinks high in sugar, salt and fats – are obvious. Despite claims by campaigners both in Australia and Britain that standardised packaging is a one-off for tobacco, there are numerous examples of public health campaigners demanding that the same tactics be used to tackle alcoholism, obesity and other health concerns.
Much of the Chantler Review is spent considering the “likely impact” of standardised packaging by considering surveys of children’s opinions. But “likely impact” is not cause and effect. It is speculation at best. So we have a government “minded” to act not on hard evidence but on wishful thinking that is not born out from the experience in Australia – which remains the only country in the world to have introduced the policy. A weaker case is hard to imagine. To compound this, the report accepts it will not be possible to assess the impact of the measure, thus failing the government’s own ‘Better Regulation’ principles that were designed to show legislation was worthwhile because it demonstrably worked.
Sir Cyril goes to great lengths to justify his argument for standardised packs. (To paraphrase: we cannot show this intervention will have a positive effect but if there is any possibility we should go ahead anyway.) Yet the Institute for Economic Affairs’ Chris Snowdon, has established that the one empirical study that is available, by Dr Ashok Kaul and Dr Michael Wolf of the University of Zurich, was omitted from the report. It’s not that Chantler didn’t know about the study (his team was given a presentation by the authors) but for some reason its findings weren’t included.
Kaul and Wolf’s study show that, using the same statistical sources regularly quoted by tobacco controllers in Australia, there had, in the first 13 months of the new law, been no measurable impact on smoking rates among 14-17 year-olds. The authors tried very hard to find some change. They were as open to widening the parameters as their professional code allowed them to be, yet they still found nothing to suggest that plain packaging has reduced youth smoking rates Down Under. Call me a cynic, but it’s hard to believe that had they found even a very small positive effect it would not have been mentioned in the Chantler Review. The fact that the study is completely ignored casts a serious shadow over the value of a report on which the Government is “minded” to act.
In addition, how can a report that fails to consider the impact of plain packaging on illicit trade and takes no account of published data from HMRC, NAO or OBR on increasing levels of illicit trade and reducing tax revenues from tobacco be considered to be balanced? How can the Department of Health take any decision in isolation of serious concerns about increasing crime and driving smokers to seek illegal goods?
So we await the announcement of yet another consultation, although Ellison has indicated it will be short and essentially about technical matters. The fact that there is no empirical evidence to support this massive intervention in commercial trade and intellectual property rights is a fact that appears to be lost on the Conservative-led department of a Conservative-led coalition government. No wonder manufacturers of other products unrelated to tobacco are looking on in quiet horror, knowing that if an important principle is conceded it can only be a matter of time before other potentially unhealthy products are in the firing line.
Meanwhile, according to a ComRes poll published by Grassroots Conservatives last month, fewer than one in five voters (18 per cent) backed the Government’s plans. “The Government should reject plain packaging of cigarettes and concentrate on teaching young people about the dangers of smoking,” the group said. Will the Government take note? Who knows? If they can consign to history the overwhelming result of a public consultation, anything’s possible. No wonder voters are drifting away from politics or away from establishment parties and towards UKIP.
Finally, another time bomb is ticking. Later this year the World Trade Organisation will consider whether the Australian plain packaging law is contrary to international agreements that would force it to be withdrawn or cost huge amounts of compensation. Imagine the egg on the face of the Prime Minister if he presses ahead with a policy that is rejected by the WTO in the run up to the general election.
So how has this happened? Standardised packaging of tobacco is an idea that was neither conceived in Conservative Party gatherings nor demanded by ordinary Conservative voters. It’s a classic example of a government – or, more accurately, a section of government – that has been captured by its officials, agencies and quangos, not to mention the campaign groups that it funds to lobby it to introduce more legislation. That this has happened should come as no surprise because the Department of Health has been funding groups to campaign for more government intervention since the Blair years. It is exactly the sort of abomination Conservatives should be dismantling rather than falling victim to.
If the Prime Minister truly believes in Conservative values, including strong government, he must reject Labour’s attempt to bully him into submission on plain packaging. Common sense alone suggests it would be irresponsible for any government to rush to regulation on such a controversial issue. Before it enforces legislation, the Government must wait and assess the longer-term impact of plain packs Down Under. At the very least, it should wait for the WTO to pass judgement on Australia’s plain packaging law.
The threat of more nanny state legislation coming from this government could easily contribute to a Conservative defeat in 2015. Conservatives cannot defeat Labour by adopting Labour policies. Instead of backing the party, people stay at home, or find new parties to vote for. Standing firm against plain packaging would signal Cameron’s intention to put clear blue water between the parties at the general election. It’s an opportunity he must grasp with both hands.