Despite industry reactions England becomes third country to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes

plain packaging of cigarettes

In an effort to reduce the appeal of cigarettes, especially among the younger generations who are often impressed and attracted by fancy cigarette pack designs, Members of Parliament in England have voted by a majority of 254 in favour of introducing standardised cigarette packaging as of May 2016, the time when broader European restrictions on cigarette packaging will also take effect as envisaged by the European Commission and will be applicable in all EU member states.

The legislation, which was voted for by 367-113, with support from Labour and Liberal Democrats, and opposition from Conservative backbenchers, is expected to soon get the approval of the House of Lords as well and its regulations stipulate that the packaging of all cigarettes sold in England after May 2016 will have to be uniform in size, shape and design, with only the brand name and brand variant as well as graphic health-warning images permitted to appear on the front. The typeset of the brand name and variant will have to be the same for all brands and packets will be generic with a dark colour such as olive green being favoured for the packaging.

The introduction of this bill makes England the third country to introduce such a law, after Ireland, which introduced similar legislation at the beginning of March and Australia which had done the same in 2012. However, officials from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have said they would follow England with similar regulations.

During the last few years when the whole issue was part of public debate, the effect of plain packaging has been fiercely contested, with advocates of the regulations arguing that it will prevent children from becoming attached to cigarette brands and critics claiming that instead of curbing smoking, it will instead boost the illegal sales of cigarettes, resulting in loss of income to the state from taxation.

The case of Australia, which was the first country to introduce plain packaging in 2012, illustrative of the disputed evidence that exists on the matter. While there is evidence that smoking rates have fallen at their fastest rate in decades since branding was removed from cigarette packs, opponents of plain packaging say the decline is a continuation of long-term trends and point to other evidence suggesting illicit sales have risen. Indeed, the tobacco companies in Australia have protested the Australian law to the World Trade Organization, which has yet to rule on the matter. It is reminded that plans to introduce similar measures in the USA where thwarted by Federal Court.

Although the UK government has said there is no evidence that plain packaging will have “a significant impact on the overall size of the illicit market,” the tobacco manufacturers having a stake in the British market which was valued at $29 billion last year, think otherwise and are ready for court fights.

More specifically, Imperial Tobacco, which is the UK’s leading seller of cigarettes, had said it would sue the government to defend what it called its “valuable intellectual property”, while British American Tobacco announced that it would commence a legal challenge, not least because  “This legislation is a case of the UK government taking property from a UK business without paying for it. That is illegal under both UK and European law.”

Japan Tobacco International, the maker of Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut, accused the government of “using the general election as the finishing line and has hurried this policy along, stifling debate among MPs and giving little opportunity for opposing views to be aired”. JTI had previously pointed out that “Plain packaging will allow new opportunities for criminals to provide counterfeit products (plain or branded), as well as to sell illicit whites and smuggled genuine products. Fuelling the illegal trade normalises criminality and shifts jobs from legitimate UK manufacturers to organised crime groups, which costs the UK taxpayer and public sector millions in lost revenue. Plain packs would be cheaper and easier to fake than branded ones and would make it more difficult to identify counterfeit product.”

Finally, a senior official of Philip Morris International, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, said after the vote that: “Today’s decision is an irrational and unnecessary attack on private property that vilifies products that well-informed adults choose to buy. While we respect a government’s authority to regulate in the public interest, we and the public expect them to do so based on evidence, taking account of fundamental values such as private property, equal treatment and consumer choice. Following this decision, we are prepared to protect our rights and to seek fair compensation for the value of our property.”

Smokers in the UK and elsewhere will keep a close eye on how the story evolves and should take serious notice of the concerns about counterfeit tobacco products as besides being illegal, such cigarettes will probably be of much inferior quality and potentially much more dangerous for one’s health.