Plain cigarette packaging is just plain silly


In this article Mo Metcalf- Fisher, Parliament Street’s Director of Strategy, argues why he thinks Plain Packaging legislation is just plain silly.

I used to smoke. I say used to — I gave it up about two months ago. I’d been smoking since I was 17. I’m now 24. I wasn’t a casual smoker either. I’m one of the ones where reducing it down to 1 or 2 a day just doesn’t work. It’s either cold turkey, or 15 a day. I gave up because I’m trying to save up money and smoking costs a lot. And I mean a lot.

Of all the things that have made stopping difficult, colorful cigarette packaging hasn’t even crossed my mind as being unhelpful or a barrier to fulfilling me from not lighting up.

For many, smoking isn’t just a habit, it’s a way of life. Some people can afford to keep it up, others like me, can’t. Somehow, those little sticks manage to factor themselves into your daily schedule — and missing a date with one of them can, at times, be very uncomfortable indeed.

Full timers (as I call them) have to be willing to part with some serious cash, if they are to keep it up.

Still, despite their successful attempts to lobby government into increasing tax on cigarettes, the anti-smoking brigade haven’t stopped me from smoking.

Sure, paying as much as £10 for a pack of 20 Marlborough Lights wasn’t desirable: but I didn’t really mind spending it because I enjoyed smoking. That’s what so many people in the anti-smoking lobby just don’t get. A majority of people that smoke, like doing it.

It was my choice to start smoking and it was my decision to quit. No amount of pressure from my GP (although I know he was just trying to do his job — despite actually being a smoker) or government agency, put me off. I simply realised that if I wanted to afford nice things, I’d have to save money in other departments. Smoking had to take the hit.

I also knew and fully understood the health risks. I remember being taught at school about the dangers of smoking. I also vividly remember being shown images of healthy and unhealthy sets of lungs and thinking,Yuck! Also, contrary to what many non-smokers think about smokers, neither of my parents smoked. I went to a boarding school where the punishment for being caught in possession of cigarettes came at a hefty price. I didn’t spend a substantial amount of my childhood around packs of smoking gangs. So I never felt pressured into smoking.

I decided to smoke because I wanted to give it a go. Now, some may say, I was wrong to do that. But at the end of the day, it was my choice. No one else is to thank or (depending how you come at the debate) blame. And that’s exactly what this debate surrounding plain packaging and the wider war on smokers comes down to.

However, choice is not the only factor that makes the current plain packaging (PP) legislation debate worth challenging.

Even if you don’t smoke, this is terrible legislation with no direction or real end goal. If it does have one, I fail to see what it is.

In his report on PP to the Secretary of State for Health, Sir Cyril Chantler found that although he believed PP would play ‘an important role’ in encouraging young people to stop smoking over time, he had ‘not seen evidence’ that substantiates how much of an impact PP would actually have and argued that it could lead to a ‘modest’ reduction. Hardly spectacular.

Public Opinion surrounding PP legislation shows low expectations, and that’s being generous. In a recent Populus poll commissioned by Forest, it was found that ‘introducing plain packaging for cigarettes’ was the lowest of any of the issue variables tested amongst 2,000 members of the public.

A further breakdown found that respondents of the survey who had children gave plain packaging legislation a mere 3.88 mean importance rating.

So with little public appetite for PP legislation and no real confirmation of it having a substantial benefit, one must ask what it’s all about?

Is this legislation truly designed to stop smokers smoking? If so, the evidence shows it’s unlikely to work. In Australia — the first country to introduce PP laws, in 2012 — tobacco deliveries have actually risen. Anti-smoking legislation in the UK has also had damaging alternative consequences.

Since the 2007 Labour government ban on smoking in pubs, research has found that around 6,000 pubs have shut down. Without directly meaning to, the smoking ban changed the definition of the word pub. The public house — somewhere where one can feel at home, but within a central community location — has changed and forced many who indulge in both socialising and smoking back to their own homes.

This has in turn driven down customers and resulted in pubs boarding up their doors.

So, is PP legislation designed to deter future smokers from being enticed by so called ‘glitzy’ packaging? Asking smokers I know, many just go for the cheapest price for their brand, irrespective of what the pack looks like.

This ludicrous and somewhat patronising excuse for introducing PP has also been slammed in a recent Deloitte research paper. The paper found packaging regulation on graphic imagery and enlarged government health warnings has not had a statistically significant direct impact upon tobacco use within its cross panel study of 27 countries.

The same paper also found that PP would make counterfeiting easier and enforcement less effective, leading to a potential growth in illicit trade and a boom for organised crime.

So, other than plastering images that look they’ve been pasted from a scene out of the horror movie Saw, packaging based legislation as a deterrent appears to be flawed.

Aside from the above criticisms a final factor in assisting our reasoning for opposing this legislation comes from the fact it’s just plain hypocrisy.

Frankly, if the government feels so strongly about stopping people from smoking, why doesn’t it just get on with banning it outright, rather than implementing expensive, bureaucratic legislation aimed at merely attacking smokers for their own lifestyle choice.

At a time when this government is setting about clearing up the financial mess of the previous Labour administration and fixing the economy, it does not seem right that it would spend potentially huge amounts of money on new changes to the law that put retailers at risk of a loss of income and risk a loss of tax revenue to help fund vital public services (yes, smokers contribute more in tax revenue — around £10 billion a year — than they cost the NHS in ‘smoking related’ diseases, estimated at around £2.5b).

There are so many more important issues that this Government must continue to tackle, before parliament is dissolved in April. And there are too many unanswered questions and flawed facts to warrant support for this legislation.

It appears PP is legislation for the sake of legislation, and as a Conservative this goes against everything I stand for. Why are we introducing something that has no basis in factual evidence?

I’ll hold my hands up and say outright that I don’t want children to smoke. I wouldn’t want my own to smoke, but when it comes to adulthood, it’s their choice.

Already, up to 100 Conservative MPs have already expressed their intention to vote against the bill, expected to go before the House within the next few weeks. Reports have also emerged of a split within the Cabinet.

Be you a full timer, an occasional smoker or a non- smoker, come and join the campaign against this plain silly legislation.

Follow Mo on twitter: @mometfisher

This article is also featured on The Commentator

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