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Tobacco Control – why I’m proud of the Coalition Government

March 9, 2011

I’m delighted that on National No Smoking Day the Coalition Government has announced tough new measures on tobacco control.

As a party the Liberal Democrats have had to learn fast that being in government has meant making tough decisions. Being in coalition has sometimes felt that we are taking the blame for unpopular decisions and not getting the credit for many of the good things being implemented, even when they come out of the Lib Dem manifesto. But today reminds me what we are in government for: so that Liberal Democrat ideas can make people’s lives better.

The first thing I did when I became Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking & Health was to lead an Inquiry into the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of tobacco control. We knew that in these straightened times we would need to make a strong business case for the most rigorous health policies and by the end of the 2010 summer recess we were able to publish our recommendations.

Some health interventions just cost money and we do it because it is the right thing to do. Some, such as tackling tobacco smuggling or using the mass media to encourage smokers to quit require Government investment which is soon repaid, saving much more than they cost. Others adopt the principle “the polluter pays” and so cost the Treasury almost nothing yet shape people’s choices in favour of better health. The cost to retailers of covering up their cigarette displays or to manufacturers of using plain packaging is small but these measures make sure that that our healthy nudges aren’t swamped by the industry’s well financed unhealthy nudges.

As a party, Liberal Democrats have taken a lead, tabling amendments in 2009 in both Houses to require plain packs for tobacco products. We have listened to the evidence on point of sale and we have seen that the cost to small businesses is low and met largely by manufacturers while the benefit to children and to smokers trying to quit is clear. We refused to listen to the tobacco industry as they fought to protect their remaining marketing opportunities and have scrutinised their covert lobbying, using small shop keepers as a “human shield”. We were the first party to see that plain packaging for tobacco products would be a crucial next step. Australia is set to require plain packaging from 2012. If the Lib Dem front bench had had its way, the UK would have beaten them to it.

Peer reviewed academic studies have demonstrated

  • How the tobacco industry uses packaging to make their brands more attractive to young people
  • How colour coding packs in red, gold blue and silver misleads smokers into thinking some are less harmful or addictive than others
  • How packaging undermines the impact of health messages.

Now research published today by ASH shows that existing support for our policy is set to rise still further as we get the evidence across. If we can show people that plain packaging is less attractive to young people than branded packs then 4 out of 5 adults will support this measure.

We can do that. We need to expose how tobacco companies use colour coding to dupe smokers. We have already made descriptions like “light” and “mild” illegal because they are so misleading, yet we have allowed manufacturers to tell the old lie in new ways through colour and branding. Young people can read their smoke signals.

We need to show how the industry uses the summer music festivals to target the opinion leaders in youth culture. We need to show that when you strip of the colours and the gimmicks the thing that really stands out on a cigarette pack is the graphic health warnings.

All this is important because it makes the case for plain packaging but it also underscores how important it is to see through the ban on tobacco displays. Just like the Australians we should have our display ban in place first before we engage in the protracted fight with Big Tobacco over plain packaging. If they have fought hard and dirty to keep displays in corner shops, be sure that they will fight much harder and dirtier to defend their most prized marketing device: the pack. A growing number of Governments have introduced display bans, but none so far has succeeded in requiring plain packs.

I’m pleased that the government is also going to look at other areas where we can de-normalise smoking. I’ve been asking the British Board of Film Classification to consider the depiction of smoking when classifying films in order to protect children, just as it considers bad language or violence.

Smoking is still the biggest cause of premature death and the major contributor to health inequalities in Bristol and other urban communities.  I was proud to play a role in the last Parliament in achieving the ban on smoking in public places.  MPs probably saved more lives in that vote than we will in the rest of our Parliamentary careers.  The Coalition’s plans announced today will build on that decision and help more people to live longer and fulfilling lives.

The Departement of Health’s plan can be read here:

21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2011 1:19 pm

    Smokers pay the reaper before we cross the river Styx 😉

  2. March 9, 2011 4:35 pm

    Interesting post Stephen, although as you know this is one area where we disagree 😉

    There’s noone in the country who doesnt know that smoking is harmful, but I think people need to be allowed to chose to harm themselves if they want to. If freedom doesnt include the freedom to do unwise things then it isnt freedom at all.

  3. March 9, 2011 8:11 pm

    Advertising is almost entirely evil in the same way that corporations are almost entirely evil.

    So I don’t have a problem with this. But it’s going to be marginally effective.

    I used to make a living out of turning smokers into ex-smokers. But it’s kinda tedious work so I don’t really bother these days.

    Anyway, there are 2 things you need to understand about smokers.

    1. Most days, somebody will tell them a pretty compelling reason why they should give up smoking. As such, become incredibly good at rationalising against such viewpoints. Even if you give them one they’ve never heard before, wait a couple of mins and they’ll have got their heads around it.

    2. The reason smokers decide to keep smoking in spite of all the good reasons is because they’ve invested so much of themselves into it. Their ego/identity starts to revolve around being a smoker and being a rebel.

    If you absolutely want to destroy tobacco companies, this is how you do it:
    1. Find the hottest female celebs between 17 and 21.
    2. Do ads showing from her perspective a male smoker being weak and her choosing the non-smoker.

    Now bear in mind, some kids still have to rebel, they’ll generally be seen as the cool kids and thus most the other kids will aspire to that. So keep banging on about hoodies and try & steer them into that.

    We need to start changing society’s perception of smokers so that they’re seen as weak, and that it becomes acceptable to express that perception.

  4. Greg Burrows permalink
    March 10, 2011 1:32 am

    A lot of people thought that when the labour government was voted out, the nanny state would be gone too, it appears not, it is your loss and UKIP’s gain, keep it up and thanks.

  5. Richard Foulkes permalink
    March 10, 2011 1:32 am

    You may well believe that the cause is just but surely you must realise that the vast majority are sick of big government interfering unnecessarily in their everyday lives? Life and taking risks are inextricably linked, you cannot and shouldn’t try to insulate people from life’s risks in this patronising Nanny State way. This whole attitude of “health fascism” of imposing your intolerant views on everyone else is unnecessary, unfair and undemocratic. Where will it all end? Eventually some activity that you enjoy will become the target of the self-righteous, puritanical and intolerant.

    This whole culture of “We know what’s best for you” really has to stop. It is patronising, tedious and irritating in the extreme. It is ultimately counter-productive because it alienates people and hardens their resolve to resist. The more you try to impose your views on me and try to alter my behaviour the more determined I will be to rebel. The public health risks of passive smoking have been massively overstated anyway. Everyone knows that the anti-smoking lobby have successfully browbeaten governments into accepting their irrational propaganda without bothering to back up their shoddy reasoning with hard evidence. The findings have been at best inconclusive.

    • March 10, 2011 5:39 pm

      As someone who ran Bristol NO2ID pretty much single-handedly for 3 years, I hardly think “the right to buy cigarettes in shiny packaging” is up there with the right to not be tortured, the right to free speech and the right to private life etc.

      You know, you can buy your cigarettes and immediately put them in a shiny package if you want. Or one of these:

      Children undoubtedly have a right to not be manipulated by corporate advertising into taking up the lamest vice in the world. Although it’s debatable how effective these measures will be.

  6. March 10, 2011 2:45 am

    I’m pleased that the government is also going to look at other areas where we can de-normalise smoking. I’ve been asking the British Board of Film Classification to consider the depiction of smoking when classifying films in order to protect children, just as it considers bad language or violence.

    Call yourself a liberal? It’s none of your bloody business to stick your oar in regarding what people can or cannot watch, and the “won’t somebody think of the childruuun” argument won’t wash. I suppose you’ll be wanting to ban the kiddywinkies from watching Humphrey Bogart movies next.

    Anyway, I’m going to light another B&H and watch my Bill Hicks videos again…

  7. Ricardo permalink
    March 10, 2011 8:53 am

    Well done Stephen – keep leading the charge!

  8. March 11, 2011 11:11 am

    This is another small step on the way to reducing the huge death toll related to smoking related illnesses. Second hand and even third hand smoke have effects on those who don’t smoke.

    I learnt recently that half of the equality gap in death rates between Stoke Bishop and Lawrence Hill can be accounted for by smoking habits. Smokers not only die 5 years earlier (on average), but suffer 15 years extra ill health.

    Babies crawling on the carpet, or sitting on chairs or settees in houses of smokers pick up and swallow the noxious chemicals. That is the “third hand smoking” effect.

    People should be able to choose whether to smoke or not, but they should be informed of the risks, not be pushed into it by advertising, nor should they be given permission to inflict damage on others.

  9. Greg Burrows permalink
    March 11, 2011 11:38 pm

    I find it quite frightening that we have a CLLr and an MP who are using their platform to further the aims of the anti-smoking industry, if they had researched all the epidemilogical evidence into second hand smoke they would have found that SHS is not significantly harmful and can not be attributed in itself to one death, the Health and safety executive (HSE) who are responsible under the health and safety at work act, could never have implemented a smoking ban due to there not being any significant evidence, ( also the American equivalent the OHSA could not) and this is why the smoking ban was brought in under the health act 2006 as no proof was needed, the Government used the SCOTH report (scientific committee on tobacco and health ) as evidence although they were an advisory committee set up by the labour government, they were only advisory as decreed by a judge in 1999 when the tobacco companies tried for a judicial review into their findings in to the Scoth report, this was refused as SCOTH could not be held to account as they were an advisory committee.
    The smoking ban must be the biggest fraud ever perpetrated by the Uk government and the anti-smoking industry for social engineering purposes.
    The ban has not reduced the number of smokers in the Uk, (in Ireland it has increased since their ban) and has actually increased the consumption of tobacco in men, it has created an apartied between smokers and non-smokers cost thousands of jobs in the hospitality industry,caused isolation to many millions of smokers and non smokers who decline to spend £3 pounds to stand outside a pub with their friends.
    The smoking ban stops like minded people meeting in a warm and comfortable place, this is dictatorship and has no place in a democratic society.
    Most of the money feeding the anti-smoking industry comes from the pharmacutical companies and we are talking many millions, their interest is the smoking cessation products which is worth billions.

    Google HSE OC255/15 (article 9) for HSE evidence prior to smoking ban it has been covered up, but a hard copy can be obtained under FOI (but copies can be found on google).

  10. Ginky Alam - Casimero permalink
    March 15, 2011 7:12 am

    im hoping that the philippine government will fully implement the banning of cigarrettes esp. selling it to minors…

  11. Anthony Williams permalink
    January 16, 2012 7:26 pm

    Why are you proud to be in the Coalition, it will be the death of the Lib Dems, I am sure there are many previous supporters of your Party that will never vote for you again, and if this is your crowning achievement then you do not deserve to be in Poliitcs at all.

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  1. Tobacco plain packs – a protection against the “Silent Salesman” « Stephen Williams' Blog

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