Government rejects Labour's cigarette 'U-turn' claim

 

George Osborne: "I think it's right that we take our time and get the right decision"

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The government has denied claims it has caved in to the tobacco industry after plans to introduce plain cigarette packaging in England were put on hold.

A decision has been delayed so more time can be spent examining how similar plans have worked in Australia.

Health minister Anna Soubry said she "would never give into pressure" and awaiting more evidence was "sensible".

But Labour said it was a "humiliating u-turn" and questioned the input of Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby.

Health campaigners and doctors groups have criticised the move, which comes as the government confirmed plans to set a minimum price for alcohol in England are to be formally abandoned.

David Cameron was a vocal advocate of minimum pricing as a way of tackling drink-related health and social problems but he appears to have been defeated by ministers who feared it would not work and prove unpopular with voters.

BBC political correspondent Ben Wright suggested the Conservatives were trying to jettison potentially unpopular policies in order to focus on their core economic message in the run up to the next election.

Ministers had also been keen to go ahead with the cigarette packaging proposal, designed to discourage young people from smoking by making the packets less attractive, after the Department of Health held a consultation last year.

Under the plans, the standardised packets would all be the same colour, with the same font, and carry a prominent graphic warning.

'Polarised'

But Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government wanted to see how the policy had worked in Australia, the first country to introduce plain packaging last year, before making a "final decision".

Analysis

"The evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers."

That was the view of Andrew Lansley, then Health Secretary in 2010.

Since then the government has held a consultation, before which it said it was open-minded.

Now the idea will be put on pause, with no timetable for making a final decision.

Ministers will say they want to see how the policy works in Australia.

Labour says the government just wants to "please its friends in big business".

And with the opposition targeting the Conservative election strategist Lynton Crosby, they will seek to make this an argument not just about public health, but lobbying.

He said a public consultation on the issue, the details of which have been published on Friday, had shown that the debate was "highly polarised" with "strong views" about the effectiveness of the policy on both sides.

In an urgent question in the Commons, shadow health minister Dianne Abbott said the "disgraceful" announcement showed the government had "caved in to big business" and the "health of the nation has been sacrificed to the interests of big tobacco".

"We have to ask on this side of the House what happened," she added. "We suspect that Lynton Crosby happened."

Mr Crosby's lobbying firm Crosby Textor was employed by British American Tobacco in Australia, but the company said the lobbyists did not work on its campaign against plain packaging there.

Asked what evidence Labour had of Mr Crosby's direct involvement, Mrs Abbott said she was not saying "he is influencing public health decisions per se" but suggested he had told senior Tories that this and other policies would give them "problems with UKIP".

Start Quote

The idea that public health is something which should be scraped off the boat as some election strategists have announced I think is entirely wrong”

End Quote Sarah Wollaston Conservative MP

But health minister Anna Soubry told MPs this was a "complete red herring" since Mr Crosby had not had any conversation with a health minister on the issue.

And No 10 said Mr Crosby had had "no involvement" in the decision and had never lobbied David Cameron on the issue.

The decision was criticised by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, a former GP, who said many advances in public health - such as the ban on smoking in public places - were controversial at the time but now commanded overwhelming public support.

"My view unfortunately is that it's all about election strategy, she told the BBC. "The idea that public health is something which should be scraped off the boat as some election strategists have announced I think is entirely wrong."

But Conservative colleague Peter Bone said "evidence-based" policy making was right and changes should not be "rushed through".

'Key tool'

Cancer Research UK claimed the decision would cost lives while the British Medical Association said it was "deeply disappointing" since packaging was a "key tool" for the industry to attract young smokers.

"This is another example of a government which claims to have prioritised public health putting vested interests over those of the public," Dr Vivienne Nathanson, its director of professional activities, said.

But pro-smokers' group Forest said ministers had "listened to ordinary people" and it was good news for those who "believe in consumer freedom and are opposed to excessive regulation".

The Tobacco Manufacturers Association said the government should look at alternative measures, such as tackling the black-market trade and sales to under-aged smokers.

"Plain packaging would have been an assault on UK business in the midst of difficult economic times," it said. "Plain packs would be far easier to copy and would have therefore been a gift to the criminal gangs behind the increasing illegal trade in tobacco."

The Scottish government says it is "still committed" to introducing plain packaging and is expected to press ahead with its own plans.

The Welsh government said it was "disappointed" by the delay and would consider "the way forward" while the Northern Ireland executive said it would like to see a "UK-wide" response to the issue.

 

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  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 640.

    I quit smoking several years ago, but once an addict, always an addict. I, and several of my friends, in the same boat, would find it easier to stay stopped without packaging (they research branding for a reason). In Scotland, supermarkets no longer display cigarettes - what a difference it makes to your wilpower If only they would ban smoking at entrances to buildings!!!

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 465.

    Neither myself, nor anyone i've ever met or heard of, started smoking because of the package design. Plain packaging is a completely baseless move with no back-up evidence. I agree entirely that we need to stop kids from taking up smoking, but let's do it through proven methods such as more education and less exposure in the home.

  • rate this
    -15

    Comment number 329.

    Do some people seriously think that anyone buys cigarettes because they're in a packet with a logo on them? Fine, I suppose it might attract young children but it's already illegal to sell them to children anyway so if that's an issue then try enforcing the current law instead of inventing stupid new ones. Good idea to drop this daft nannying proposal.

  • rate this
    +34

    Comment number 178.

    As an ex-smoker (10 years clean and not hypocritical about it), packaging isn't the issue and never will be. Advertising was the problem as it made smoking glamourous.
    The real issue is how the NHS deals with stopping people smoking. Wittering on about how people should stop will never work. Smokers will only stop when they are ready to, and then they need proper support to succeed in giving up.

  • rate this
    +16

    Comment number 157.

    I agree with the many comments already on packaging will not make a difference as those that wish to smoke will smoke as its peer pressure more than a packet design. Plus one weird thought I had in conversation with friends that smoke is that a plain pack may turn into a craze where you doodle on your pack as its a blank canvas!!

    The counterfeiting argument is a good one also

 

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