Tobacco Control – why I’m proud of the Coalition Government

I’m delighted that on National No Smoking Day the Coalition Government has announced tough new measures on tobacco control.

As a party the Liberal Democrats have had to learn fast that being in government has meant making tough decisions. Being in coalition has sometimes felt that we are taking the blame for unpopular decisions and not getting the credit for many of the good things being implemented, even when they come out of the Lib Dem manifesto. But today reminds me what we are in government for: so that Liberal Democrat ideas can make people’s lives better.

The first thing I did when I became Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking & Health was to lead an Inquiry into the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of tobacco control. We knew that in these straightened times we would need to make a strong business case for the most rigorous health policies and by the end of the 2010 summer recess we were able to publish our recommendations.

Some health interventions just cost money and we do it because it is the right thing to do. Some, such as tackling tobacco smuggling or using the mass media to encourage smokers to quit require Government investment which is soon repaid, saving much more than they cost. Others adopt the principle “the polluter pays” and so cost the Treasury almost nothing yet shape people’s choices in favour of better health. The cost to retailers of covering up their cigarette displays or to manufacturers of using plain packaging is small but these measures make sure that that our healthy nudges aren’t swamped by the industry’s well financed unhealthy nudges.

As a party, Liberal Democrats have taken a lead, tabling amendments in 2009 in both Houses to require plain packs for tobacco products. We have listened to the evidence on point of sale and we have seen that the cost to small businesses is low and met largely by manufacturers while the benefit to children and to smokers trying to quit is clear. We refused to listen to the tobacco industry as they fought to protect their remaining marketing opportunities and have scrutinised their covert lobbying, usingsmall shop keepers as a “human shield”. We were the first party to see that plain packaging for tobacco products would be a crucial next step. Australia is set to require plain packaging from 2012. If the Lib Dem front bench had had its way, the UK would have beaten them to it.

Peer reviewed academic studies have demonstrated

  • How the tobacco industry uses packaging to make their brands more attractive to young people
  • How colour coding packs in red, gold blue and silver misleads smokers into thinking some are less harmful or addictive than others
  • How packaging undermines the impact of health messages.

Now research published today by ASH shows that existing support for our policy is set to rise still further as we get the evidence across. If we can show people that plain packaging is less attractive to young people than branded packs then 4 out of 5 adults will support this measure.

We can do that. We need to expose how tobacco companies use colour coding to dupe smokers. We have already made descriptions like “light” and “mild” illegal because they are so misleading, yet we have allowed manufacturers to tell the old lie in new ways through colour and branding. Young people can read their smoke signals.

We need to show how the industry uses the summer music festivals to target the opinion leaders in youth culture. We need to show that when you strip of the colours and the gimmicks the thing that really stands out on a cigarette pack is the graphic health warnings.

All this is important because it makes the case for plain packaging but it also underscores how important it is to see through the ban on tobacco displays. Just like the Australians we should have our display ban in place first before we engage in the protracted fight with Big Tobacco over plain packaging. If they have fought hard and dirty to keep displays in corner shops, be sure that they will fight much harder and dirtier to defend their most prized marketing device: the pack. A growing number of Governments have introduced display bans, but none so far has succeeded in requiring plain packs.

I’m pleased that the government is also going to look at other areas where we can de-normalise smoking. I’ve been asking the British Board of Film Classification to consider the depiction of smoking when classifying films in order to protect children, just as it considers bad language or violence.

Smoking is still the biggest cause of premature death and the major contributor to health inequalities in Bristol and other urban communities.  I was proud to play a role in the last Parliament in achieving the ban on smoking in public places.  MPs probably saved more lives in that vote than we will in the rest of our Parliamentary careers.  The Coalition’s plans announced today will build on that decision and help more people to live longer and fulfilling lives.

The Departement of Health’s plan can be read here: http://www.dh.gov.uk/prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/documents/digitalasset/dh_124960.pdf