The Westminster Government has made a shock announcement that plain packaging on tobacco products is to be voted on ahead of May’s General Election.
It was thought that the Government had dropped plans when an expected announcement did not appear in the Queen’s Speech in 2013, but following this, Health Minister Jane Ellison said she was ‘minded to press ahead’ with the measure. It is thought if passed, a law could be in place by 2016. However the Government is likely to face a stern legal challenge to any proposals.
Jeremy Blackburn, JTI Head of Communications said that JTI strongly considered plain packaging to be unlawful as it would it would deprive the company of assets worth billions of pounds. He said it was “inexplicable that the Government is rushing to legislate on this important issue, which was opposed by nearly two thirds of the respondents to a public consultation.”
Imperial Tobacco said that it was clear that the UK Government’s decision to vote in favour of standardised packaging was politically motivated and contradicted evidence from Australia regarding its success.
Melvin Ruigrok, General Manager of Imperial Tobacco UK commented: “The Government should evaluate the effectiveness of current tobacco control measures before proceeding with Standardised Packaging; where no credible evidence has been forthcoming that it will contribute to improving public health.”
It was Ellison who made yesterday’s surprise announcement in Parliament. “We cannot be complacent. We all know the damage smoking does to health,” she said.
“This government is completely committed to protecting children from the harm that tobacco causes.”
A free vote will be held in the Commons shortly, meaning MPs do not have to follow the advice of the party whips, and will be entitled to vote as they chose. While it is expected that there will be some opposition from libertarian Conservatives, the measure is widely expected to be passed.
The Scottish Government is pursing plain packaging in Scotland on its own timetable but has said previously it would follow any legislation passed by Westminster.
Evidence from Australia, where plain packaging has been introduced, suggests a growth in the illicit trade since the introduction.
While the health lobby has welcomed the Government plans, Christopher Snowdon, Director of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said that it was a “gross infringement” of the right of companies to use their trademarks and design their own packaging. He commented: “There is no need to wonder what will happen next, we need only look at Australia where the black market has grown and youth smoking has risen. To pursue this grandstanding policy in spite of the Australian experience is sheer negligence.”
The Scottish Grocers’ Federations reacted angrily to the news, with Public Affairs Manager John Lee said: “We are shocked that the UK government has made this announcement before it has even responded to its own consultation on plain packs and while the EU standstill period is still in place. Retailers are angry about the severe penalties outlined in the draft legislation of up to two years imprisonment. More and more this is appearing to be a sham consultation process with a business impact assessment that was not fit for purpose and an outcome that was pre-determined. The UK government seems to have caved in to political pressure and the impact on retailers and the illicit trade could be severe.”
SGF has urged Elzbieta Bienkowska, the EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, to urgently review the penalties contained in the draft legislation.
Jeremy Blackburn said that in addition to the public opposition, “over 40% of other EU Member States have raised concerns over the plain packaging proposals. JTI and others have repeatedly said that plain packaging would infringe EU requirements on the free movement of goods, violate property and other fundamental rights – including trademark rights – and go against obligations under EU and WTO rules.
“We have no doubt the major crime syndicates across the globe are scrutinising these proposed regulations as the UK Government prepares to provide counterfeiters with a blueprint of exactly how to copy UK tobacco packs in the future. Brand owners of products in any controversial industries should prepare for similar anti-business measures as the Government has now made it clear that regulation will be passed despite the evidence showing that plain packaging doesn’t work.“
Ruigrok added: “As shown in Australia, Standardised Packaging in England will merely act as a windfall for criminals looking to profit from the illicit trade; furthermore we will work on strengthening our brands which are defended by national, European and international laws concerning the protection of intellectual property.
“To reassure the trade; as an industry we have effectively and robustly navigated our way through a plethora of tobacco legislation whilst continuing to provide an important category for our trade partners. The Government announcement does not represent a done deal and we will continue to positively and proactively engage with the Government.”
A British American Tobacco spokesperson said there was no doubt the move was about electioneering. “The UK Government has short-circuited its own consultation process by rushing this announcement out now,” they said. “This is also a serious error of judgment given the clear evidence from Australia that plain packaging has not achieved any of its public health objectives and has increased illicit trade to its highest level in seven years.”