Plain packaging? Plain nonsense

The government would be crazy to go ahead with standardised packaging unless they knew with certainty it was going to work. They don't

Time to dump this costly consultation?
Roger Helmer MEP
On 25 May 2012 14:15

The UK Coalition government recently launched a consultation which will consider whether or not cigarettes and rolling tobacco should be legally required to be sold in standardised or plain packs. Like a disturbing number of other announcements from the government in recent times, this is worrying from a personal liberty perspective.

There is no question that smoking is a bad for your health. I would recommend that anyone who does smoke stops. However, this doesn’t mean I believe it is justifiable that the state should intervene to remove the intellectual property of a company selling a legal product in a misguided attempt to stigmatise a legal activity.

In the same vein, why should the government use our taxes (and, let’s be perfectly clear, smokers pay far more in tax than they cost the NHS, they are in reality net-contributors to the state) to hector, lecture, cajole or coerce millions of adults to induce them to act in a way that the Department of Health deems to be acceptable? The simple answer is that they shouldn’t.

There is no majority consensus behind standardised packaging, despite what we were told by a recent YouGov poll. The poll in question made claims based on a highly leading question and the President of YouGov happens to be on the Board of Trustees of a taxpayer funded anti-smoking lobby organisation, ASH. And even if there was a consensus, government should exist to support individual rights rather than to pander to calls from vested interest groups.

Many object to standardised packaging on the grounds that it will be highly ineffective in reducing smoking uptake or lowering smoking rates, but this completely misses the point.

As a non-smoker, the reason I am deeply concerned by this proposal is because I believe that people should be able to do as they please, without interference from a nanny state. Government should not be able to force its views on adults engaging in a legal activity; free citizens who choose to smoke shouldn’t be a target for the Department of Health.

On the introduction of the Smoking Ban many liberal voices raised concerns that this was the thin end of the regulatory wedge: if government could tell people where they can and can’t smoke would they soon be doing the same with drinking and eating? And they were right – government, whether red or blue, has continued to introduce more and more draconian measures such as a minimum unit price for alcohol.

Government is the tool of its citizens – it exists to serve them – not to belittle or marginalise them and this is exactly what this preposterous piece of legislation does. It says that smokers are pariahs on society who need special laws for their products, such as the introduction of the display ban last month. The organisations that the Department of Health funds to campaign against smokers call this process “denormalisation”, a phrase that sounds like it was handpicked from Orwell’s 1984.

The government has allegedly “launched a public consultation” on the proposal but it has quite clearly already made up its mind. It has also lined up a number of taxpayer funded organisations to support the proposal. This will include “elicit[ing] the subjective judgements from three groups of internationally - renowned experts on “tobacco control”. Not a business owner, police officer or border control officer in sight. Impartial evidence based policy making this is not.

If the Department of Health listened to small and local business owners, recently pummelled by the costs of installing special tobacco displays, they would know that many of these businesses can’t afford more regulation from government. The policy, drawn up in the depths of the Department of Health, is the definition of disproportionate. That it comes at a time when the overburdened UK economy has slipped back into recession is one of the clearest signs that this government is chronically out of touch and bereft of ideas. Not only has government asked your local newsagent to hide cigarettes from you, they now want those hidden cigarettes to be in standardised or plain packets so that in case anyone sees them there’s no risk they’ll be influenced by the packaging. Reality meets satire.

The proposal for standardised packaging also has terrifying implications for the level of organised crime in the UK. Without a single shred of evidence, anti-tobacco organisations like ASH will tell you that it isn’t easier to forge one single style of standardised packet than it is to replicate the 200 strong varieties there is in branded packs. Common sense alone tells us that this simply cannot be true.

In the UK, HM Treasury loses £2.2bn a year from cigarettes and tobacco products being smuggled and sold illegally. This is more than the entire annual budget for our intelligence agencies or the FCO; and we hand it straight to organised criminals. Let’s be clear who we’re talking about: sophisticated gangs who traffic drugs, women and children into the UK. The only people who are going to profit from the over regulation of cigarettes are criminal networks who already do enough damage to British society.

In the face of this swathe of negative effects, the government would be crazy to go ahead with standardised packaging unless they knew with certainty it was going to work; unless they were sure that this was the silver bullet that would make every smoker successfully quit. They don’t. They have no idea, not a single piece of evidence, if it will work or not. There is no precedent to judge. No other country has tried such a draconian measure; Australia’s parliament has recently passed the policy but it has not yet come into force and is currently subject to several expensive legal challenges in the High Court, and it has disputes at World Trade Organisation (WTO) level with some countries including from Honduras and the Ukraine.

Even the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli, has publicly rejected the policy saying that "the European Commission doesn't want to go as far as Australia, where cigarette packets must be completely plain.” Mr Lansley, and indeed Mr Cameron, should ask why the policies of this apparently “Conservative led” government are more interventionist than even those of the EC.

I have spoken to a number of my colleagues and voters on this issue. We all agreed that this costly consultation is plainly preposterous and should be dumped.

Roger Helmer is Member of European Parliament for the East Midlands region, UKIP Spokesman on Energy and Industry and a member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy

blog comments powered by Disqus