In May 2012 – facing widespread post-recession cynicism about the future of public health policy – the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, optimistically declared that she thought, “the best days for health are ahead of us, not behind us”.
Our campaign for plain, standardised packaging of tobacco products was just a month old at the time. And the UK government had just begun to seek views on the potential impact of the measure.
Fast forward to last week, and we were thrilled at the news that MPs finally voted ‘yes’ to standardised packaging for tobacco .
But it hasn’t been an easy ride.
On a journey of U-turns, evidence reviews and MPs being “minded” to do things, it took a Herculean effort from across the public health world to make standardised packaging a reality in the UK.
So here are our 13 significant moments from the three-year campaign.
1. Going public
Back in April 2012, the Government began gathering the public’s views on standard packs. At the same time, we launched (what was then) our new public campaign pushing for their introduction. We kicked off with a powerful unscripted film that demonstrated the appeal of glitzy packs to children:
On the other side, tobacco company JTI (Gallaher), launched an “unprecedented” £2 million campaign opposing the measure. All four variations of the ads the company ran nationally in 2012 and 2013 would ultimately be ruled misleading by the UK’s Advertising regulator.
2. Ambassadors spread the word
In June 2012, 67 CRUK Campaigns Ambassadors headed to Westminster for ‘Parliament Day’, meeting their MPs to tell them about the importance of standard packs. At the close of the Government’s public consultation in August 2012, Cancer Campaigns Ambassador Alan Peace joined us at the Department of Health to hand in a huge petition of more than 78,000 signatures showing public support for the campaign.
3. Australia leading the way
Australia became the first country in the world to introduce plain, standardised tobacco packaging in December 2012. The then Australian Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, declared that tobacco companies are well aware that “if Australia succeeds in being the first country to implement these laws, we won’t be the last”.
4. Send in the ‘mobile billboards’
In February 2013, thanks to a generous private donation, we sent every MP a real pack of cigarettes, demonstrating the continuing role these ‘mobile billboards’ play in tobacco marketing.
5. No mention from the Queen
Bad news: Despite high expectations, standardised packaging didn’t feature in the Queen’s Speech in May 2013. This was a major setback for the campaign, and a bad day for public health.
6. Standard packs ‘shelved’
The bad news kept coming in July as standard packs were ‘shelved’. Steadfast in their resilience, more than 8,000 campaigners mobilised to tell the Prime Minister he was making a mistake.
At the same time, the role of Government strategist Lynton Crosby in this decision – who had worked on behalf of the tobacco industry in Australia – featured in the headlines.
7. Plan B
Over the next four months, we went back to the drawing board, rekindling interest in the campaign using channels like our social media communities and Mumsnet (to name a few).
Our Ambassadors campaigned outside the Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative Party conferences – braving all weathers – distributing thousands of leaflets and asking delegates to end the #packetracket.
Behind the scenes, our policy experts worked with partners in the Smokefree Action Coalition (SFAC) and Peers from across the House of Lords to add standard packs as an amendment to the Children & Families Bill. And our Ambassadors wrote to 240 Peers in the Lords to spread the word.
The Government responded by launching an Independent Review of the growing evidence for standard packs, chaired by paediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler.
At the same, time we unveiled another hard-hitting video, this time highlighting tobacco industry tactics to recruit new smokers:
8. Back on track
Great news: in February 2014 a majority of 429 MPs voted in favour of the tobacco control amendments to the Children & Families Bill. This gave the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, powers to put standard packs back on the table. We were well and truly back on track.
9. Chantler Review backs standard packs
The results were in, and the Independent (Chantler) Review concluded in April 2014 that it’s “highly likely that standardised packaging would serve to reduce the rate of children taking up smoking”.
We heard the welcome news that, following the review, the Public Health Minister, Jane Ellison, confirmed that, the Government was “minded to proceed” with standard packs. After the announcement, over 4,000 CRUK supporters emailed their MPs to tell the Government to act fast and introduce the regulations.
10. Aussie evidence
In June 2014, the Government launched a(nother) consultation – this time on the latest draft regulations for standardised packaging. The next month more than 100 of our Ambassadors descended on Westminster again to meet with their MPs ahead of the Election. They were armed with the latest evidence from Australia, showing that following the introduction of standard packs smoking rates had fallen to a record low.
11. Running out of time
As 2014 was drawing to a close, the Government offered further assurances that it wanted to move ahead with standard packs, but kept its cards close to its chest, stating that it had not made a “final decision”. The anxiety across the health community was that Parliament might run out of time before the General Election.
By December 2014, Australia was marking two years since it pioneered the measure and a postcard from ‘Stan Pack’ gave a timely reminder to the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister.
12. Cross-party public support
Great news: A new year and the Government announced its intention to ‘lay regulations’ for standardised packaging in this Parliament. At the same time, our YouGov polling found that support for standard packs among the public reached the highest we’d polled in the duration of the campaign (at 72 per cent), with support across the political spectrum – as the graphic below shows.
13. The final hurdle
Ahead of last week’s crucial vote, 2,300 campaigners emailed their MPs asking them to turn out and vote.
And 367 of them listened, voting ‘yes’ to see standardised packaging introduced across the UK. 113 MPs voted against the measure. There was cross-party support, with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, both voting ‘yes’. Here are a selection of tweets we spotted on the day:
I've just voted yes to introducing standardised packaging of tobacco – result expected later today. Read why here: http://t.co/NgIMCcOXO4
— Luciana Berger (@lucianaberger) March 11, 2015
I've voted in favour of standardised packaging of cigarettes, a good child protection public health reform. pic.twitter.com/4KMj1Iz4YN
— Stephen Williams MP (@swilliamsmp) March 11, 2015
After weighing up all evidence I voted for tobacco standard packaging regulations before Parliament, supported by most of my constituents
— Stewart Jackson MP (@Stewart4Pboro) March 11, 2015
Our Chief Executive Harpal Kumar called it an “historic vote,” which “marks a strong and clear commitment to the health of future generations”.
It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but we’re really pleased with the result. We want to thank every one of you who took part in the campaign, including organisations and partners across the UK who have worked tirelessly to make this a success of a united health community. This is a major public health victory which will reduce the number of children who begin a habit that kills half all long-term users. By protecting future generations from a deadly addiction, many lives will be saved.
But while we want all those who helped make standard packs a reality to enjoy the moment, we can’t be complacent when tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the UK.
So, as we put a tough campaign behind us and focus on the next steps towards a tobacco-free future, we can be more confident than ever that the best days for health really are ahead of us.
Chris Woodhall is a senior policy officer at Cancer Research UK