Ben Lazarus

Plain packaging of cigarettes is based on pseudoscience and speculation

Plain packaging of cigarettes is based on pseudoscience and speculation
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It has been a bad week for smokers. In yet another skirmish in the war against the vice, it was announced late last night that the British government is pressing ahead with Soviet-style plain packaging of cigarettes, despite Cameron’s decision to shelve the policy in July.

Australia is the only country currently with plain packaging, after enacting it in December 2012. The results have been less than impressive. Indeed, as I wrote about earlier this month for the Telegraph , the accountancy firm KPMG released a report on 4 November, which highlighted how the Australian government has lost $1 billion Australian dollars in the 12 months ended in June, as a consequence of the vast jump in black market sales of cigarettes.

There was also a rise of 154 per cent in sales of manufactured counterfeit cigarettes and fake brands (known as ‘illicit whites’). One of these is called Manchester; it has a market share of 1.4 per cent, which is staggering considering they are illegal. In terms of total shipments, illicit sales of cigarettes have increased from 1.5 per cent to 13.3 per cent. And most significantly - cigarette consumption has not changed.

The fact that plain packaging has not altered smoking habits is not surprising given the pseudoscience and utter speculation used to justify it. What is shocking is that the British government are preparing to enact legislation that has been shown to have a negative impact on government revenue, and does not fulfil its stated aim of reducing smoking. (This is to say nothing about the violation of consumer choice and the destruction of brand recognition.)

For Cameron and his coalition partners, the ever-ironically named Liberal Democrats, facts are of little interest. Rather, Cameron’s sudden U-turn would appear to be a political move to counter Labour’s jibes. This has been acknowledged by the government, with a source telling The Times, 'this [policy] will nail Labour’s ridiculous smears'.

In July, I had lunch with a close aide of Cameron’s, who informed me that Cameron simply did not have a view on plain packaging, which is why he did not press ahead with it then. That he suddenly believes in it now — despite the overwhelming evidence against it coming from Australia – highlights his cowardice at being viewed, in the words of Ed Miliband, as 'the prime minister for Benson and Hedge funds'. The fact that Cameron is scoring political points by fostering the illiberal prejudices of a few bellicose puritans onto the whole of society, is depressing, insulting, and, utterly undemocratic.

Yesterday, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence issued guidelines proposing banning NHS workers and patients from smoking on hospital grounds. Not only is this a nasty attack on NHS workers and the freedom of patients, it will have a particularly significant impact on psychiatric patients. Writing in the Telegraph, Andrew M Brown highlighted that eight out of 10 people with schizophrenia smoke. 'Probably there are complex neurobiological causes for this, but it is clear that smoking provides relief, consolation and diversion'.

For any of you, like me, who have had the unfortunate pleasure of visiting someone dear to you in such a place, then you’ll understand just how gross a violation of freedom this proposal is.

Written byBen Lazarus

Ben Lazarus is special projects editor of The Spectator

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