It is estimated that more independent retailers took part in the government’s plain packaging consultation than any other consultation in retailing history, while thousands lobbied their MPs to protest over the plan. So was it indies who forced the U-turn? Asian Trader reports
The government has stubbed out plans to ban company branding on cigarette packets, saying it wants to first see the impact of a similar decision in Australia.
The u-turn comes after months of lobbying by independent retailers, who said plain packaging would have a hugely disruptive effect on their businesses.
Thousands contacted their MPs to warn that the move would make it easier for counterfeiters to manufacture illicit cigarettes and was unlikely to fulfil its aim of curbing youth smoking.
They also accused ministers of jeopardising jobs in the retail and packaging industries by pursuing a policy that was not based on ‘evidence.’
The Department of Health had announced a consultation on plain packaging last year. It came as Australia implemented a law saying cigarettes must be sold in olive green packets carrying graphic health warnings.
At the time, Anna Soubry, the public health minister, wanted the government to back plans to bring in legislation for standardised packaging. And Britain looked set to become the first European country to follow the Australian model.
However it has since emerged that Downing Street was concerned about the effect on jobs, and the first indication that the proposal was being axed came when legislation for plain packs was left out of the Queen's speech earlier this year.
In an official statement last month, the Department of Health said 668,000 had responded to the consultation. “The opinions were highly polarised with strong views put forward on both sides of the debate. There was also widespread use of campaigns and petitions by a number of organisations,” a spokesman told Asian Trader.
The government spokesman added: “Having carefully considered these differing views, the Government has decided to wait until the emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured before making a final decision on this policy.”
Currently, only Australia has introduced standardised packaging, although the Governments of New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland have committed to introducing similar policies. Standardised packaging, therefore, remains a policy under consideration, said the spokesman.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “The UK is known the world over for its comprehensive, evidence-based tobacco control strategy, and we are continually driving down smoking rates through our range of actions.
“Obviously we take very seriously the potential for standardised packaging to reduce smoking rates, but in light of the differing views, we have decided to wait until the emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured, and then we will make a decision in England.
“This decision is an important one and whilst we keep it under review, we’ll be continuing to implement our existing plan to reduce smoking rates through ending the display of tobacco in all shops, running national behaviour change campaigns to encourage smokers to quit and through supporting local authorities to provide effective stop smoking services.”
News that the government has put the issue of plain packaging on hold rather than rushing forward with plans to ban branding packs has been welcomed by independent newsagents.
The NFRN, which mobilised its thousands of members to contact their MPs, said it was pleased – though it remained cautious regarding the future.
NFRN National President Colin Fletcher told Asian Trader: “The announcement by health secretary Jeremy Hunt is a victory for common sense.
“As responsible retailers, NFRN members have long supported government aims to improve public health by reducing smoking levels among minors, but it has long been our belief that standardised packaging is not the right way to go about this.
“Indeed, it has always been a deep concern that putting tobacco into plain packaging would take trade away from legitimate retailers and place it in the hands of smugglers and counterfeiters who have no compunction as to who they sell to.
“We have repeatedly challenged the Department of Health to think again about bringing in standardised packs and we are delighted that Secretary Jeremy Hunt is now seeing sense.”
NFRN chief executive Paul Baxter added: “The NFRN has maintained that any DOH action on tobacco packaging has to be taken on the back of rigorous and evidence based policy and it is currently far too early to see what effect plain packs have had in Australia – to date the only country where they have been introduced.
“We are therefore pleased that the government has decided to defer any action until detailed evidence of the impact in Australia has been obtained.”
The move was also welcomed by the tobacco industry which claims plain packaging would hit jobs and encourage cigarette smuggling.
A spokesman for Imperial Tobacco, the world's fourth-largest cigarette group by market share, said: "We've always made our views clear that there's no evidence that plain packaging would achieve its stated outcome, that it would be anti-competitive, and we've always pointed out the impact it would have on the illicit trade in the UK which is growing."
In publishing the results of the consultation, the government said 53 percent of respondents had been in favour of the measure, but nevertheless it had decided to wait until the impact of the Australian ban could be measured.
However, the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance, which represents 26,000 independent retailers who all sell tobacco products, claimed the majority of responses had been against plain packs.
Debbie Corris, National Spokeswoman of the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance and a Whitstable shopkeeper, told Asian Trader:
“We welcome the publication of the Consultation Report. Over 64% of those who responded to the consultation thought plain packaging was a bad idea and it is reassuring that the government has listened to them.
“There is no credible evidence that introducing plain packaging would stop young people smoking. Instead, the government should make it illegal for people to buy tobacco for those under 18 as it is in Scotland, and as it already is for alcohol across the UK.”
Meanwhile an EU committee has stopped short of calling for an outright ban on tobacco branding.
It said last month that cigarette packs should carry stark health warnings but the EU does not have to adopt the plain wrappers favored by Australia and, more recently, Ireland, an EU committee said on Wednesday.
The EU's executive, the European Commission, wants to make smoking less attractive to young people who it feels are susceptible to the allure of colorful cigarette packets and novelty flavors.
The European Parliament's health committee backed the Commission's proposals for much larger health warnings on packets than at present, but stopped short of a mandatory ban on tobacco company branding as in Australia, which some lawmakers had wanted.
"The important thing is to turn young people off smoking. We do not need plain packaging to do that," Karl Heinz Florenz, a German centre-right member of the committee said.
The committee supported the Commission's proposals that those EU countries that want to impose so-called plain packaging – such as Ireland – should be free to do so.
In May, Ireland became the first European country to agree a ban on all company branding in favor of uniform colors and labeling, following the example set by Australia.
The lawmakers said graphic pictorial and written health warnings should cover 75 percent of the front and back of cigarette packets. Companies may fill the remainder of the pack with their logo.
However the size of the warnings could still be reduced before the rules are jointly finalized by EU countries and the full parliament.
Last month, a majority of EU member states agreed that the warnings should cover just 65 percent of packets, while some members of the European parliament have called for warnings as small as 50 percent. Florenz predicts that the parliament and governments will eventually settle for a compromise of 60 percent.
The committee also backed a ban on distinctive flavorings such as menthol, which most EU countries support. But governments oppose another Commission proposal backed by the committee to ban slim cigarettes, popular among female smokers.
A vote by the full European parliament is expected before the end of this year, and the rules could be finalized during the first half of next year.
However, independents are warning MEPs that some amendments to the European Tobacco Products Directives (TPD) could have unintended consequences.
NFRN Public Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Mitchelson said: “While the NFRN is supportive of aims to reduce smoking, we are concerned that some of the amendments put forward by the EMVI could have unintended consequences.
“Increasing the size of health warnings to 75 per cent of the pack will make it even easier for counterfeiters to flood the market with their wares, while banning slims means people will be consuming more tobacco and nicotine than they previously did!”
Mr Mitchelson continued: “This is, however, only the beginning of a long process and we will be urging members to contact their MEPs, explain our concerns and urge them to concentrate their actions on measures that will cut down smoking levels rather than increase them.”
‘When retailers speak out, it does make a difference’
Thayer Balasingham who runs a Mace store in Hackney, East London, said he was very happy that the government had climbed down over its plans for plain packs.
He told Asian Trader: “It really shows that if we retailers club together and speak to our local MPs about the issues that affect us, then something can be done about it.
“I would have to be cautious however because I don’t believe the debate is gone for good. Some small traders rely solely on cigarettes. You don’t make much on margins, but the amount of money it brings in through sales of other items in unbelievable and it’s a massive footfall driver.
“For smaller shops it’s basically their livelihoods – that’s why we have to fight for it. I can foresee that anytime the Government need some positive PR, they are likely to starting debating the issue again because it makes them look like they are actively doing something to improve the public health – even though the measure would make no difference to smoking rates.
“To other independent retailers, I would stay, keep up the effort! We should all be following developments on this and keep lobbying our MPs, arranging more round table discussion and writing letters. The powers that be need to understand what the consequences are if they try and go down this route.”