Girl looking at plain pack

We separate fact from fiction about plain cigarette packaging

Since we launched our campaign to put tobacco products in plain packs, it’s been interesting to read some of the reactions in the media – particularly those of the tobacco industry.

Several points stand out that are worth discussing.

Firstly, in an interview in the Telegraph, the chief executive of Imperial Tobacco, Alison Cooper confirmed that her company would mount a legal challenge if the UK government was to force tobacco to be sold in standardised packets.

Fiction: The tobacco industry claims that plain packaging is confiscating the property of tobacco companies and could result in significant legal and compensation costs for governments.

Fact: The trademarks are not being ‘acquired’ by anyone – it is just their use that is being restricted. International treaties on intellectual property have opt-outs for public health .

On top of this, the Telegraph article goes on to say: “The industry calculates one in four cigarettes smoked in the UK is bought from smugglers or counterfeiters – a figure that is expected to rise if the industry is regulated more tightly.”

The tobacco industry exaggerates the scale of smuggling. While still a problem, it has halved [pdf] since its peak, to one in ten cigarettes. This is due to better enforcement by government agencies and strict curbs on the tobacco industry’s own activities as they have a poor record on smuggling. For example, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, most illicit cigarettes were genuine products manufactured in the UK, exported to continental Europe and then smuggled back to the UK.

Fiction: Plain packs are easier to forge, so smuggling will rise.

Fact: The existing packs are already so easy to forge that they have covert markings to enable enforcement officials to distinguish illicit cigarettes. With these markings and large pictorial warnings, standardised packs will not be easier to forge.

In a second article in the Financial Times Alison Cooper goes on to say: “The so-called evidence supporting plain packaging is purely put together by anti-tobacco lobby groups…[so] we need to push here to make sure we get a genuine consultation with the health department. Maybe it should be overseen by someone like business instead, because I’m concerned it won’t be genuine otherwise.”

It’s no great surprise to see the tobacco industry’s concern over plain packaging. With advertising bans in place, tobacco manufacturers have increasingly focused on packaging design to make their products more appealing [pdf].

A leading industry analyst has estimated that plain packaging will halve tobacco industry profit margins so it is not surprising that Philip Morris has stated “we don’t want to see plain packaging introduced anywhere regardless of the size and importance of the market.”

It’s important to remember that this is a health measure, designed to protect children from tobacco marketing and ultimately reduce the number of deaths caused by tobacco. More than 100,000 cancer deaths are caused by tobacco in the UK every year. It’s for this reason that the Department of Health are overseeing the consultation.

And finally, a third article in the Daily Mail also caused us some concern, since it only looked at the industry view and didn’t appear terribly balanced.

To try to address this, we sent the Mail a letter for publication. It didn’t appear in the newspaper, so we have also tried to post it online in the comment section of the website. It wasn’t published either, and we doubt it will be at this stage. This is what we wrote:

Dear Sir

It’s no surprise to see the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Imperial Tobacco all seriously opposed to an effective measure that protects young people from tobacco marketing and helps prevent the next generation from starting to smoke. Imperial Tobacco sells tobacco and the other organisations have received funding from the tobacco industry.

What is disappointing is to see such a complete lack of balance in the article. It fails to mention the evidence – not just from UK researchers but from around the world – showing the impact of packaging in helping recruit new smokers and the importance of the pack to an industry trying to disguise a lethal product with glitzy and distracting designs.

Tobacco kills half of all long term smokers. In the UK, smoking kills five times more people than road accidents, overdoses, murder, suicide and HIV all put together. Around 157,000 children between 11 and 15 start smoking in the UK every year. We know that plain packaging won’t stop them all from starting to smoke, but it will give millions of children one less reason to start.

Sarah Woolnough

Director of policy

Cancer Research UK

We’ll be keeping an eye on more media commentary on plain packaging. In the mean time, you can sign up and support our campaign: “The answer is plain”.