MPs vote on plain packaging signals industry defeat – but there may be a sting in the tale

Put you off? That’s the point. Ella Pickover/PA

The government’s decision to allow MPs to vote on standardised packaging before the general election will finally bring to an end the tobacco industry’s three-year campaign to prevent regulation of cigarette packs in the UK. A campaign, our research shows, in which they used misleading evidence on both the illicit tobacco trade and the health benefits of standardised packaging as a tool to delay legislation.

That MPs will have the opportunity to vote on standardised packaging has been widely welcomed by health advocates and the medical community – and strongly criticised by tobacco industry-supported organisations such as Forest and the Institute of Economic Affairs, which said it was a “gross infringement of the right of companies to use their trademarks and design their own packaging”.

But a wealth of evidence from the independent review by Sir Cyril Chantler, indicates that that this important measure is likely to help reduce the number of children and young people taking up smoking. It is hoped that this will reduce the number of deaths from smoking-related diseases, which currently stands at around 100,000 a year in the UK.

If introduced, standardised packaging regulations will prohibit all on-pack branding, except the name and brand variant, printed in a standard font. In place of branding, packs will feature written and graphic health warnings, covering a minimum of 65% of the pack, in line with the new EU Tobacco Products Directive.

The vote

The decision to allow a parliamentary vote before the election is hugely important. Despite broad cross-party support for the measure, there would inevitably have been a significant delay before standardised packaging made it back on to the parliamentary agenda – whether the government had changed after the election or not – if this decision hadn’t happened now.

It seems likely that standardised cigarette packaging will now be passed by parliament without any further delay. In a whipped vote last year, MPs showed their support for the idea in principle, with only 24 MPs not voting for the measure. The House of Lords has also shown its support by tabling the amendment to the Children and Families Bill in 2013 which allowed the first vote to take place.

New dawn for tobacco legislation in the UK. Rajan Manickavasagam, CC BY

The tobacco industry’s response

This decision signals the death knell to the tobacco industry’s campaign but it may yet mark the start of a new battle if tobacco companies take the issue to the courts.

In addition to their arguments about a rise in illicit trade and the questioning of health benefits, tobacco companies have also claimed that it is an infringement of their intellectual property. They have funded front groups, such as Forest and Hands Off Our Packs, using them as a vehicle to promote these arguments to the general public. And they have commissioned research of their own in a bid to undermine the evidence base for standardised packaging.

But research conducted by myself and colleagues at the University of Bath and the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies last year exposed the misleading nature of tobacco industry evidence on both the illicit trade and the health impacts of standardised packaging.

The government’s decision to progress standardised packaging to a vote in the House of Commons seems to show that while the legislative process may have been protracted by tobacco industry opposition, it has not ultimately been undermined by it.

The vote’s significance

If – or, as seems likely, when – MPs vote for standardised packaging, the UK will be one of the first countries to implement the measure in Europe – Ireland is also progressing legislation – and only the second or third globally, following in Australia’s footsteps. This ground-breaking innovation in tobacco control legislation illustrates the UK’s commitment to the health of its population and of its children: every year more than 200,000 11 to 15-year-olds start smoking in the UK (around 170,000 in England).

It is to be hoped that the devolved assemblies will also follow Westminster in introducing the measure and that the UK, like Australia, will stand firm against any legal action the tobacco companies may now undertake. This important measure will be worth defending: it will contribute to a reduction in the impact of smoking on our – and our children’s – health.