MPs are voting today in favour of the introduction of standardised cigarette packaging. There hasn't even been a debate on the issue and the BBC thinks the result is a foregone conclusion. That's bad news for the tobacco industry, hardline libertarians and Nigel Farage.
It's been amusing watching the Tobacco Manufacturer's Association carve out its nuanced – almost schizophrenic – position on the matter. Smoking is bad for our health and it is impossible to argue otherwise. So they don’t. Theirs must be the only industry which is resigned, ostensibly at least, to deterring potential customers.
Big tobacco firms have an obligation to their shareholders, so they have to say something in their own defence. Their position is that plain packaging will make it easier for criminals to produce and sell counterfeit cigarettes. They quote HMRC’s tobacco smuggling strategy:
The availability of illegal tobacco products undermines public health objectives and impacts on the health of both individuals and wider communities; circumventing health labelling requirements and age of sale restrictions… Unregulated distribution networks associated with smuggling make tobacco more accessible to children and young people and perpetuate health inequalities across socio-economic groups.
The implication is that plain packages will be easier to counterfeit than branded ones. This argument is a smokescreen; criminals don’t usually spoof artwork. In my experience illicit tobacco is currently sold in plain packaging. In clear plastic bags. How ironic. In the UK only nine per cent of ready-rolled cigarettes are bought on the black market. This figure isn’t so low because the boxes are difficult to mimic; it's because most smokers would rather not inhale arsenic, dead flies and dust.
In a tweet in January the chain-smoking Ukip leader said: 'Plain packaging is an appalling intrusion into consumer choice and the operation of the free market. Jobs and tax revenue would suffer.'
Really? Job losses and lost tax revenue would be quickly offset by savings in the NHS, because fewer people would develop lung cancer and other preventable diseases linked to tobacco consumption. The statistics (and the associated costs) are appalling. Smoking is currently estimated to account for over 30,000 cases of lung cancer a year. It is very expensive to treat and usually fatal.
Farage is right when he says that this is an illiberal move. But the practical arguments against plain packaging don’t stand up to scrutiny. And in pragmatic Britain, ideological arguments about illiberalism just don't carry much weight. The anti-smoking campaigners are winning because they are on the right side of the argument, however much it pains me (and others of a libertarian bent) to admit it.
If you are a smoker who is attached to pretty packaging you should consider switching to e-cigarettes, as the veteran anti-smoking campaigner Dr Derek Yach recommended in the most recent issue of Spectator Health. A Google image search for e-cigarette skins reveals reveals the stunning variety of colours and motifs on offer – everything from ying-yangs and leopard print to, inexplicably, a silhouette of St Paul’s Cathedral. Plus, of course, you get the nicotine. What's not to like?