Plans to prevent tobacco companies from printing brands or logos have gone up in smoke, according to the Sun.
David Cameron was reported to no longer be in favour of forcing all fags to be sold in plain packets.
That gave Labour an opportunity to bring the fag packet calculation into their retort. “Reports that PM is to protect cigarette packaging. Makes sense – he’ll need those fag packets to write out his 2015 public health manifesto,” Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary, tweeted in response.
Yet some Whitehall sources have told FactCheck the plans haven’t been ruled out at all, and that the matter is still out to consultation.
So FactCheck’s decided to get down to some ashen-faced digging into the arguments around fags and their packets.
What does the government want to do?
Last spring, it launched a consultation into whether all cigarette packets should be “standardised”. “We need to do more to stop young people taking up smoking and to help those smokers who want to quit,” then health secretary Andrew Lansley said in a written ministerial statement as he launched the consultation.
He said the government had an “open mind” at that stage, but it was prepared to examine the prohibition of logos, colours, brand images or promotional information on packaging other than brand names and product names in a one-size-fits-all colour and font.
The consultation, he continued, would consider whether the moves would make tobacco less appealing, give health warnings more prominence, and have a “positive effect” on people, particularly children, on smoking-related attitudes.
It was launched in April, and ended in August, though the report hasn’t been published yet.
As to whether it’s going to go ahead or not, we don’t yet know. Last month, it was reported that the Queen’s speech this month would contain legislation for plain packaging.
This month, there was a report saying the speech wouldn’t.
When we asked the Department of Health whether it would be included or not, a spokeswoman said: “We have an open mind and we are still considering responses and evidence and we have yet to reach a formal decision.”
So officially, the government is saying that it’s still on the table. We understand that some in cabinet are for, and some are against.
Where’s the evidence?
This is where the tobacco industry and health and anti-smoking campaigners are at loggerheads, with little sign of resolution, in the near future at least.
In December, Australia became the first country to introduce plain packaging.
There isn’t, as yet, any evidence to suggest whether it’s stopped people smoking or not – it’s only four full months that it’s been in play.
So when Forest, the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco, which is supported by British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, and Gallaher Limited (of Japan Tobacco Group of Companies), say, “There is no evidence that ‘plain’ packaging will have a positive impact on public health”, they quite rightly say that it’s because it hasn’t really been tried. It’s not that it doesn’t work, we just don’t know yet whether it does or not.
But there have been studies which have tested plain tobacco packaging. A review of 37 of those studies found that both adults and children found plain packets less attractive than branded packs. They found that the more branding elements were removed, the less attractive the packet came.
The studies also found that cigs in plain packets were found to be of poorer quality by both adults and children. They were thought of as being less cool.
In one example, the plain pack exposed “the reality of smoking”, which made them less attractive.
But packaging also affected whether smokers thought of what they were doing as being harmful or not. Overall, the studies found, darker coloured plain packs were seen as more harmful, and lighter coloured plain packs less harmful.
The pro-smoking lobby says, however, that even if children find a packet attractive, it’s not that that drives them to smoke. Forest cites a paper by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), in which children said that the factors encouraging them to start smoking were: peer pressure, having family members who smoke, and how smoking was portrayed in films and television. That study did, however, say that exposure to marketing was also a factor in why they chose to smoke.
What would plain packaging mean for the government’s tax revenues?
Last year, the government earned just under £10bn from tobacco duty receipts, according to Revenue and Customs.
The amount that it’s been collecting has been going up, year by year, despite the number of smokers tending to decrease, according to the Office for National Statistics. In 1974, 45 per cent of the adult population were smokers, compared with 20 per cent in 2011.
That’s been the case for smoking in all age groups; in 1998, 31 per cent of 16-19-year-olds smoked. That dropped to 18 per cent in 2011.
Those opposed to plain fag packets say that it would make the packets easier to counterfeit. Take this, from an advert by Gallaher: “Standardising packs will make them even easier to fake and cost taxpayers millions more than the £3bn lost in unpaid duty last year.”
The only problem is that if there is no evidence that plain packets will reduce smoking, neither is there any evidence that they will increase counterfeiting.
Gallaher were also pulled up by the Advertising Standards Authority for their £3bn claim, after complaints, including from Cancer Research UK.
According to the HMRC, the illicit cigarette market led to revenue losses of £1.2bn in 2010-11, and of £660m for rolling tobacco.
What about the packaging industry?
It’s been reported that David Cameron was “persuaded it would damage the packaging industry”.
We don’t know whether that’s the case or not, and Number 10 weren’t able to say, but he was certainly asked about it.
When Mr Cameron visited Keighley, in West Yorkshire, in March, he was asked by Mike Ridgway, who had worked in packaging and was said to have been leading a group campaigning against plans for plain packaging, whether there was any truth in reports that it was going to happen.
“Can you confirm whether that decision has been taken yet? And the reason I ask is that we have three very successful businesses here Bradford area, employing many hundreds of people, and they really want to know what the latest is on is on that, concerning their future,” Mr Ridgway said.
Since then, Forest has often cited the pro-packaging industry argument.
When FactCheck contacted Mr Ridgway, the former MD of packaging group Weidenhammer UK, to ask how much money would be lost for the packaging industry were plain packets to be introduced, he said “millions”, but was unable to say any more, saying there were no sources for this claim.
What does the tobacco lobby say?
Well the Gallaher advert gives us a clue as to what their public arguments are – that it would increase counterfeiting, and Forest says there is no evidence – yet – that it works, and asks that we at least wait and see how Australia pans out.
But internal documents released following court action in the US have revealed how important packaging is to manufacturers, at least.
In 1996, Rothamans Benson and Hedges said in one industry document: “In the cigarette category brand image is everything. The brand of cigarettes a person smokes is their identity. Cigarettes tell others who they are as a person.”
Changes in brand designs “can have a significant impact on sales, as demostranted by the graphical redesign of the Lambert & Butler range in the UK in November 2004, which increased sales by £60m”, one report suggested.