You can’t blame tobacco firms for resisting plain packaging. But what’s the government’s excuse?
The coalition government acts as an agent for Big Tobacco, even as it auto-moralises. I do not think it is mad to call its actions murderous. It has pulled excellent anti-smoking legislation from the Queen’s speech on Wednesday, which would have forced the tobacco companies to use only plain packets, and chopped their one remaining marketing strategy entirely dedicated to cutting new smokers off at the knees. (Established smokers rarely change brands.) Potential smokers would have seen a dull, unfashionable box, illustrated with a photograph of gangrene or something equally hideous, rather than a glossy confection designed to mislead. Now the policy is ash and Big Tobacco is free to pursue its vocation of severely shortening the lives of one in two of its customers. And where the UK leads, the world follows; this is good news for tobacco’s markets elsewhere.
Could this be connected to Lynton Crosby, who will oversee the strategy for the 2015 election? He was the marketing man behind tobacco’s attempts to thwart plain packaging in Australia – although there, at least, he failed. Or does the government feel pressure from Ukip, some of whose members seem to think that smoking, along with misogyny, homophobia and racism, is patriotic? (I once watched a Ukip grandee rub a black girl’s hand on a platform and say, “Look, it doesn’t come off”). Of course Ukip backs smoking. It thrives on the rhetoric of the pub and assumes that because everyone smoked on D-Day, it was the smoking that won the war. The freedom to smoke is a freedom of sorts – and Nigel Farage smokes. This is like David Cameron legislating for morning coats; and if only Farage felt the same liberalism towards gay marriage.
Who else smokes these days? Children mostly, and poorer children more than anyone, and the numbers are rising. Two-thirds of smokers start before the age of 18, and 39% before the age of 16; only half will manage to stop before it kills them, although most wish they could. Andrew Lansley, the former health secretary, acknowledged this in 2011 when the government was still mouthing anti-inequality bites. “Smoking rates are much higher in some social groups, including those with the lowest incomes,” he wrote. “These groups suffer the highest burden of smoking-related illness and death. Smoking is the single biggest cause of inequalities in death rates between the richest and poorest in our communities.” How true. Yet smoking is a stick to beat the poor with: that benefit claimants all smoke and watch Sky TV is one of the government’s favourite cliches. Perhaps now they see its use.
When representatives of Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco International met the government this year, Imperial Tobacco threatened to pull its packaging manufacture from the UK even though plain packaging and no packaging are hardly the same thing; no one is suggesting cigarettes be delivered by elf. They insisted plain packaging would assist counterfeiters and smugglers. If this fascinates you, I suggest you watch British American Tobacco’s amusing and ostensibly racist promotional video Who’s In Control?, in which cartoon eastern European gangsters drool over the financial possibilities of regulation – although anti-counterfeiting measures can easily be incorporated into plain packets. Are these theoretical gangsters Bulgarian, or Romanian, is the obvious question. Elsewhere in Who’s In Control, the super-imposition of physical violence and drug abuse with regulation veers into paranoia.
We could muse further on these apocalyptic fantasies, but the tobacco companies will not publish their impact studies. They were burnt before, when a 2011 BAT report designed to thwart plain packaging in Australia was shown to be ruthlessly skewed and scientifically worthless. It is true that the exact impact of plain packaging is unknown, and will remain so while the tobacco companies so diligently oppose it. But the independent studies undertaken all agree – young people and women don’t like plain packets, and tobacco knows it. By its terror shall we know its desires.
I don’t blame the tobacco firms. Death is their business. When BAT says, after exhausting its arguments, that “We will take every action possible to protect our brands, the rights of our companies to compete as legitimate commercial businesses selling a legal product, and the interests of our shareholders”, I almost admire its dedication to cash. Yet the British government, theoretically dedicated to the health of its citizens, has a duty not to sink to lobbyists, even if Nigel Farage does smoke. It attacks the habits of the poor, but does nothing helpful. As ever with this government, hollow rhetoric will do.