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Tobacco plain packaging works: UK review

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A British Government Minister has announced she is “currently minded to proceed” with the introduction tobacco plain packaging following an upbeat appraisal by a leading paediatrician.

In his review, Sir Cyril Chantler concluded that although there were limitations to the evidence about the effectiveness of tobacco plain packaging laws, the signs were that they had an effect on smoking rates.

“The evidence base is modest, and it has its limitations, but it points in a single direction and I am not aware of any evidence pointing the other way,” Sir Cyril said in his report.

In late 2012, Australia became the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging laws for tobacco products, and is fighting legal challenges to the rules from a number of countries.

Both the New Zealand and Irish governments are closely considering introducing similar laws, and British Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated in the past an interest in such legislation, though late last year he appeared to take a step back from this position, rousing accusations that he had been ‘got at’ by the tobacco industry, which has had links with Australian-born Conservative Party political adviser Lynton Crosby.

But British Public Health Minister Jane Ellison told Parliament Sir Cyril’s review made a compelling case that plain packaging would be “very likely to have a positive impact on public health”.

“I am therefore currently minded to proceed with introducing regulations to provide for standardised packaging,” Ms Ellison said.

The Minister said around 200,000 children aged between 11 and 15 years start smoking in the UK every year, about 600 a day, and that even a 2 per cent cut in the rate at which smoking was taken up would mean 4000 fewer children a year with the deadly habit.

She told Parliament she would publish draft regulations for final consultation, and promised changes before the next general election is due in May next year.

But the Minister’s assurances have not satisfied health groups and the Opposition.

While welcoming Ms Ellison’s statement, the British Medical Association said there should be no further delays to introducing legislation.

“As doctors, we see first-hand every day the devastating effects of tobacco addiction, and we call on the Government to make a decision quickly and to introduce standardised packaging at the earliest possible opportunity in order to help put an end to a life-long addiction that kills and destroys health,” Deputy Chair of the Association’s Board of Science, Dr Ram Moorthy, said.

Shadow Health Minister Luciana Berger urged the immediate introduction of legislation banning company branding on tobacco packaging.

“There is an overwhelming body of evidence in favour of standardised packaging, and there can be no excuse for a further delay,” Ms Berger said.

In his review, Sir Cyril found that “branded packaging contributes to increased tobacco consumption”.

The paediatrician said Australia’s experience did not constitute a trial of tobacco plain packaging because of the confluence of a number of changes, including an increase in the tobacco excise.

“Disentangling and evaluating these will take years, not months,” he wrote.

But the expert stressed other research and studies meant he was confident in his conclusion.

Sir Cyril said it was notable that Japan Tobacco International attempted to sue the Australian government for taking possession of its mobile “billboards”.

He also found there was no evidence of increased counterfeiting following the introduction of plain packs in Australia.

His finding contradicts claims by British American Tobacco Australasia that the black market’s share of tobacco consumption has increased from 11.8 to 13.3 per cent since the introduction of plain packaging.

The company claimed the illegal tobacco market in Australia now amounted to 2.7 billion cigarettes, with an additional 400 million smuggled into the country since the introduction of plain packaging.

Adrian Rollins