Plain packs for puffing

Tanya Buchanan says plain packaging must be coupled with ban on point of sale displays if we are to prevent children taking up smoking

Requiring the sale of cigarettes in plain packaging is a great idea. Anyone with a basic knowledge of marketing knows that packaging is used to sell products. And since the passing of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotions Act in 2003, packaging together with point of sale displays have become the last frontier for tobacco advertising in the UK.

So when the Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley announced that the Westminster Government were looking at the possibility of introducing plain packaging for cigarettes you could be forgiven for thinking ASH Wales would be elated by the news. In fact, the reality was a little more complicated.

Let’s be really clear on this. We absolutely support plain packaging for cigarette packets. Plain packs enhance the impact of health warnings, reduce misleading beliefs about the relative harm of different products and reduce attractiveness of cigarettes to young people. Tobacco companies invest huge sums of money in advertising and marketing their products in order to recruit new customers, who are nearly always children and young people. Most smokers become addicted as children. In Wales the average age that people start to smoke is between 11 and 12 years of age.

Of those who take up smoking, only about half will manage to stop before they die. Currently more than 5,500 people die prematurely from smoking related diseases every year in Wales alone and we estimate more than 100,000 people in Wales are living with preventable tobacco-induced ill health.

The tobacco industry itself knows that plain packaging would be highly effective. As a research report for the industry in 2007 put it, “In our opinion, [after taxation] the other two regulatory environment changes that concern the industry the most are homogenous packaging and below-the-counter sales. Both would significantly restrict the industry’s ability to promote their products” (accessed at

In fact, so effective would plain packaging be, the industry will fight tooth and nail to prevent it from becoming a reality in the UK. The industry’s ability to fight and delay legislation which is good for public health is a well established phenomenon and it is the reason for our hesitation in embracing Mr Lansley’s announcement. It will take years to implement plain packaging in the UK. However, the other major regulatory change that would impact on tobacco sales is below the counter sales and that measure was passed into law in the Health Act 2009 by the previous government.

The evidence for point of sale display bans is sound. In Ireland, research released in November 2010 demonstrates that retail sales have not decreased nor have illicit tobacco sales increased. Crucially, however, young people in Ireland now report definite shifts in social norms regarding tobacco use including a marked decrease in the expectation of successfully being able to purchase tobacco.

The Health Act 2009 gave Wales powers to draft its own regulations on how point of sale display bans would be managed and regulated. The Welsh regulations have been drafted and consulted on. However, they are not yet implemented. Why? Because the tobacco industry has launched a full scale campaign to have the legislation overturned. Meanwhile, the Coalition government has spent the last few months prevaricating on whether to repeal, dilute or postpone the legislation. So whilst we are waiting for an announcement from Westminster on existing legislation, Mr Lansley announces a measure that will no doubt be effective but take years to come to fruition.

While Mr Lansley’s commitment to tobacco control is not in question, our concern is that some in the governing Coalition will see plain packaging as an opportunity to reverse the progress towards point of sale display bans. And if that happens, then here in Wales, we will spend many, many more years watching our 11-year-olds become addicted to tobacco before they are old enough to vote.

Our message to Mr Lansley is crystal clear: We are delighted the Government is considering plain packaging, but this must be in addition to point of sale display bans. The legislation on point of sale display bans has already been passed and Wales has been given the powers to implement its own regulations. We have drafted and consulted on those regulations. It is time to let us implement them and protect the health of our young people.

Tanya Buchanan is Chief Executive of ASH Wales, the voluntary organisation in Wales tackling tobacco use

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