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MPs’ standardised tobacco packs debate – we need action not delay

by Chris Woodhall | Analysis

6 September 2013

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The Palace of Westminster

Tuesday’s debate highlighted  support for standardised packs

In one of the most quoted lines in modern history, President Kennedy told the world “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Campaigning for tobacco control measures against the financial might of Big Tobacco isn’t easy – but nothing worth doing ever is. Even so, we’re tremendously disappointed that the Government missed an easy chance to start saving lives, by delaying their decision on whether to introduce standardised packaging earlier this year.

But we’re not deterred, and will continue to repeat our call to let parliament decide on standardised packs, so that our MPs have the chance to move with the tide of public support, and protect public health.

On Tuesday, in a busy Westminster Hall, MPs were given the chance to debate this important issue. We went along to hear what they had to say.

Cross-party support

It was a packed room – showing the strength of interest and feeling on the issue. The Government’s response in July to the UK-wide consultation on standardised packaging was not only a disappointment to the UK’s public health community, but also to the World Health Organisation, who have called on countries to introduce standard packs.

Tuesday’s debate was characterised by a show of cross-party support, highlighting that the response to the consultation – a prescription for delay – was neither acceptable nor the desire of parliament. Just a selection of quotes from across the political parties makes the point most effectively:

  • Conservative MP Bob Blackman – who hosted and opened the debate – gave a comprehensive overview of standard packs, stating that “The issue transcends party lines. It should not be a party political matter”.
  • Labour MP Chris Ruane reminded everyone of the famous quote “Give me the boy at seven and I will give you the man.” He remarked that he thinks the strapline for the tobacco advertising industry is “Give me the child smoker at 12 and I will give you the early grave.”
  • Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow gave a rallying call for “…a bias towards action to protect the health of children and young people from the harm that smoking does”.
  • SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie moved to make the debate aware “…that some research suggests that when young people and children start smoking ordinary cigarettes, they can then move on to harder drugs, destroying not only their health but their families and their future career and health prospects[.]”
  • And DUP MP Jim Shannon stated “I was not aware that we waited for countries, such as Australia, to implement initiatives before we would do so in the UK. It was my impression that we sought to lead the field[.]”

Public support

And away from Parliament, when we ask the public what they think about standard packs the sentiment is just as consistent and just as clear.

The support of the public, and the support of their elected representatives galvanises our call to let parliament decide.

As we have detailed before we know the opposition to standardised packaging comes from the tobacco industry, and its funded front groups. And we know support for the measure comes from the public health community. Tuesday’s debate highlighted that political support across the parties echoes the call of the latter.

What next?

Not a single MP speaking in the debate questioned the impact tobacco has on health, or for the need to reduce the numbers of young people smoking in the UK.

So we need them to do everything in their power to reduce that detrimental impact, now and for future generations. Standardised packaging could build on 50 years of success of tobacco control policies, and ensure that the UK is doing everything possible to lift the burden of tobacco.

207,000 children start smoking every year in the UK. If we all take the easy path and do nothing about that, then something has gone very wrong in our approach to public health.