Plain packaging: Simply a charter for counterfeiters

AFTER several delays, the secretary of state for health Andrew Lansley has finally announced the public consultation on the plain packaging of tobacco – looking at whether the government should force all tobacco products to be sold in standardised packets with no branding and larger graphic health warnings.

He kicked off the consultation with the comment that he is “trying to arrive at a point where they [tobacco companies] have no business in this country”. An astonishing statement for a government minister to make about a business that some 80,000 people in this country depend on for their livelihoods.

American business groups have been among the first out of the blocks, making a joint statement over the weekend expressing “deep concern” about the announcement.

These concerns are shared by many in the UK. Does government have any place curtailing the intellectual property rights of legitimate business, especially when there is no evidence that this will achieve the desired health outcome? Furthermore, the major beneficiaries of such a move will be counterfeiters and traffickers.

Plain packaging of tobacco – already being dubbed “the counterfeiters’ charter” – has received a firm thumbs down from the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Its recent Tax Gaps report concludes that plain packaging “could result in not only a loss of tax revenue but also the greater use of unregulated and potentially more harmful products”. That loss would be on top of the £16.7bn lost to the illicit trade in cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco between 2005-06 and 2009-10.

Lansley’s fellow MPs are querying the policy too. Mark Field MP has said that plain packaging would “create a dangerous precedent for the future of commercial free speech”. Justice secretary Ken Clarke has expressed surprise that people think young boys and others take up smoking simply because they are attracted by the packet.

The intention of this latest proposal is to reduce the uptake of smoking among children, but we have already had a swathe of new regulation to try to tackle this. The age at which you can purchase tobacco was raised from 16 to 18, a total ban on tobacco vending machines was introduced late last year to stop underage purchases and a ban on tobacco displays for larger shops designed to put tobacco “out of sight” of children came into effect earlier this month. Why the scramble to introduce yet more legislation, without pausing to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of these measures?

Counterfeiters and traffickers will be praying Andrew Lansley gets what he wants. But business and consumers cannot afford to give up without a fight.

Angela Harbutt is campaign director of Hands Off Our Packs.

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