UK is seeing “massive” rise in campaigns against plain packets for cigarettes, say health activists

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 17 July 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e4856
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1London

The tobacco industry and its affiliates have stepped up their lobbying in the United Kingdom against proposals to introduce standardised plain packaging on cigarettes and other tobacco products, say health campaigners and industry observers.

The rise in campaigning against plain packaging since the Department of Health launched its consultation in April has been “massive,” said Andrew Rowell, a research fellow at the University of Bath. He added, “There has been a huge amount of lobbying by industry, both direct and indirect. It is reaching a crescendo to coincide with the end of the consultation.”

The health department launched a consultation in April on whether tobacco products should be sold in standardised packaging.1 Packaging would be a standard colour with no branding, and text would be in a standard font. The consultation was due to end on 10 July but was extended for a month to allow all interested parties to respond.

Advertisements sponsored by Japan Tobacco International (JTI) appeared in the press at the weekend, including in the Sunday Times. They attacked the department’s proposals for being “policy based evidence”—evidence that is “gathered to support a chosen outcome”—as opposed to “evidence based policy.”

On 6 July JTI announced that it was a launching a £2m (€2.6m; $3.1m) campaign “to share its views on the potential consequences of enforcing standardised cigarette packs in the UK.”

The industry claims that plain packaging will be easier to fake and that children will be targeted by smugglers.

In a press release Martin Southgate, JTI’s UK managing director, said, “I fail to see how making illicit trade easier can be seen as progress on reducing smoking.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying group that has links with the US Tea Party and includes tobacco companies among its sponsors, has launched a global campaign in which it warns countries looking to introduce plain packaging that they will be violating intellectual property rights laid down by the World Trade Organization and will be open to major legal challenges.

Australia passed antismoking legislation, including a ban on branding, last November and immediately faced legal challenges from five tobacco companies.2

Commenting on the Australia’s draft bill in June last year, Karla Jones, international relations task force director for the American Legislative Exchange Council, said, “If passed, this law threatens free market principles and amounts to a government seizure of what is often a company’s most valuable asset: its trademark.”

Campaigns run by pro-tobacco organisations funded by the tobacco industry have become highly visible in the UK. One campaign called “No to plain packs,” by the Tobacco Retailers Alliance, a campaigning group funded by the tobacco industry, led to more than 30 000 staff in independent shops across the UK signing postcards against plain packaging and sending them to the consultation.

In “Hands off our packs” the campaigning group Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco), which is supported by British American Tobacco and other big companies, is calling for signatories to “help protect Britain from the dangers of excessive regulation.”

Rowell, who in June helped launch the Tobacco Tactics website,3 which monitors the influence and activities of the tobacco industry in public health debates, said that there is “no doubt” that the packaging on cigarettes and other tobacco products is important, despite claims from the industry that there is no evidence that packaging influences consumers.

He told the BMJ, “The pack is the only marketing tool left [to the tobacco industry]. And for them to turn round and say that plain packs will have no impact is beyond the pale.”

Similarly, he added, the industry’s argument that plain packaging would lead to counterfeiting doesn’t hold up when companies themselves have been complicit in tobacco smuggling. He said, “They can’t have it both ways.”

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said, “There’s documented evidence that the tobacco industry and its affiliates spent millions of pounds lobbying against plain packs in Australia, and we’re now seeing the same here. The industry says it’s against plain standardised packaging because it won’t work, but that’s laughable. Why would tobacco manufacturers care about that? It’s because it will work and will undermine the profitability of the tobacco manufacturers that they hate it so much.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e4856


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