Plain Packaging in the UK
- 1 Background
- 2 Majority of Public Support Plain Packaging
- 3 Official Submissions to the UK Consultation
- 4 May 2013: Plain Packaging Dropped from the Legislative Programme
- 5 UK Plain Packaging Plan Scrapped in July 2013
- 6 Government U-Turn on Plain Packaging: November 2013
- 7 Final 'Short' Consultation Published
- 8 More Government U-Turns in 2014
- 9 UK Government Announces Backing of Plain Packaging
- 10 Plain Packaging Legislation Passed in the UK Parliament
- 11 Tobacco Industry Launches Legal Campaign Against UK Government
- 12 Relevant TobaccoTactics Resources
- 13 TCRG Research
- 14 References
In November 2010, the UK Government announced it would consider introducing plain packaging for cigarettes and other tobacco products. The Government’s subsequent official Strategy for Public Health in England (March 2011) stated:
"The Government will look at whether the plain packaging of tobacco products could be an effective way to reduce the number of young people taking up smoking and to help those who are trying to quit smoking."
The Tobacco Control Plan for England (March 2011) included a commitment to a public consultation to:
"Look at whether the plain packaging of tobacco products could be an effective way to reduce the number of young people who take up smoking and to support adult smokers who want to quit, and consult on options by the end of the year."
The Government's consultation on plain packaging (Image 1) commenced on 16 April 2012 and was scheduled to close on 10 July 2012. However, at the last minute it was extended by a further month to 10 August 2012.
As part of the Government’s consultation, the Department of Health published an independent scientific review which examined the findings of 37 studies that provide evidence of the potential impacts of plain tobacco packaging. This review found that:
"There is strong evidence to support the propositions set out in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) relating to the role of plain packaging in helping to reduce smoking rates; that is, that plain packaging would reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products, it would increase the noticeability and effectiveness of health warnings and messages, and it would reduce the use of design techniques that may mislead consumers about the harmfulness of tobacco products. In addition, the studies in this review show that plain packaging is perceived by both smokers and non-smokers to reduce initiation among non-smokers and cessation-related behaviours among smokers."
The tobacco industry’s reaction to the consultation was predictably extremely hostile. Many of the arguments the industry and its front groups have made against plain packaging are very similar to those that they have used to oppose earlier regulations. There is also continuity with previous behaviour in the way that the industry conveyed these arguments to their key stakeholders, i.e. policy makers, retailers and the general public.
- Plain Packaging Opposition in the UK: 2012 Consultation
- Plain Packaging Opposition in Scotland
- Plain Packaging Opposition in Ireland
Majority of Public Support Plain Packaging
On the eve of the public consultation, a YouGov survey of 10,000 adults showed that 62% of the public supported plain packaging while only 11% opposed it. In addition, the survey revealed that only 6% believed the tobacco industry could be trusted to "tell the truth".  Similar results were replicated when another YouGov survey published on the 19 June 2014 revealed that only 12% of the public trusted the tobacco industry's plans on how to cut smoking rates.
Official Submissions to the UK Consultation
In their submissions to the Consultation, in addition to critiquing the pre-existing evidence on the potential efficacy of plain packaging, each of the big four tobacco companies in the UK argued against plain packaging using the voices of a number of seemingly 'independent' experts and organisations. However, upon closer inspection, many of these organisations and experts have connections with the tobacco industry.
May 2013: Plain Packaging Dropped from the Legislative Programme
Despite political and media speculation that it would be included in the Queen’s Speech in May 2013, plain packaging was not incorporated in the Government’s legislative programme.
It was widely reported that the reason for the Government’s abandonment of plain packaging (along with other public health measures such as minimum pricing for alcohol) was the influence of Conservative campaign strategist, Lynton Crosby. Crosby owns an Australian PR and lobbying firm called the Crosby Textor Group, “a specialist opinion research, strategic communications and campaigns company” which has links with both the tobacco and alcohol industries. Sparking concern from public health groups, Crosby Textor was appointed by the Conservative Party in December 2012 to provide ‘strategic direction’ for the next election.
The UK branch of Crosby’s firm, which operates under the name Crosby Textor Fullbrook (CTF), has had tobacco companies on its books since the 1980s. (Image 2) On Crosby’s profile page on the CTF website it states that CTF “deploys tools as diverse as PR, lobbying and public policy advocacy in support of clients’ objectives.”
Despite owning CTF and being a lobbying specialist, Downing Street stated that Lynton Crosby’s meetings with the Prime Minister and other ministers would not be publicly disclosed as he is classed as a political advisor. 
Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston stated:
"It is a concern, a great concern, that somebody so close to the heart of Government has such links with lobbying organisations. It makes the point on why we need transparency on lobbying in the UK."
MP Diane Abbott, Labour’s Shadow Public Health Minister called for Prime Minister David Cameron to explain the omission of plain packaging from the Queen’s Speech.
"This is deeply concerning, because behind all the chaos, confusion and dither, it’s clear that Lynton Crosby and the government’s friends in big business are pulling the strings, and public health is being quietly ditched by this government…David Cameron needs to get out of the bunker and explain…whether he was aware of his main campaign strategist’s business interests when he offered him the job."
Similarly, Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said:
"From the outside it looks very much like a right-wing lobbyist is dictating the Coalition’s health policy."
The tobacco industry’s incessant lobbying and the current political climate in the UK are also likely to have contributed to the delay to implement plain packaging. In reference to the latter, Crosby’s advice to David Cameron to “get the barnacles off the boat” means getting rid of policies that distract from the core Conservative message in the run up to the national elections in 2015.
Industry Lobbying in 2013
The tobacco industry, as well as using numerous front organisations, has also met Government officials directly. In early 2013, each of the big four tobacco companies was invited to meet with officials at the Department of Health (DH) to discuss the potential adverse economic consequences of plain packaging that they all referred to in their individual submissions to the consultation. The DH required further evidence to substantiate the statements the industry had made in this regard. This can be viewed in two ways:
1. That, the industry did not provide sufficient evidence of adverse economic outcomes in their submissions to the consultation.
2. That, these meetings have given the industry undue opportunity to influence a public health policy, thereby contravening Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC which strongly advises that public policy should be free from tobacco industry influence.
Furthermore, in the meeting between the DH and British American Tobacco (BAT), the latter told the DH that smuggling had increased by more than a quarter of the legal market in the fourth quarter of 2012 and that these figures were backed by OLAF (the EU anti-fraud office). Neither statement stacks up. Official figures suggest that illicit trade in the UK has been on the decrease in recent years, and in this particular instance the report had not been officially approved by OLAF:
- "the KPMG report was traditionally agreed with OLAF and member states in advance of publication, but this year’s had not been."
The figures came from a KPMG report commissioned annually by Philip Morris International. The company published their 2012 figures earlier in 2013 than in previous years, potentially in order to influence the outcome of the consultation.
Conservatives versus UKIP
Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP (June 2013) is an outspoken advocate of smokers’ rights. A heavy smoker himself, he opposes smokefree public places and views tobacco regulation as nanny statism.
In 2013, UKIP outperformed the Conservatives in many local by-elections. It has been suggested that the Conservative Party are fearful of losing more votes to UKIP if their policies are not perceived as ‘conservative enough’. Therefore, the Conservatives may be nervous of being seen as illiberal and anti-smoking. 
UK Plain Packaging Plan Scrapped in July 2013
On 8 May 2013, despite plain packaging’s omission in the Queen’s speech, a spokesperson for David Cameron insisted that no decision had been taken over the issue. However, on 12 July 2013 it was announced that the British Government would await the outcomes of plain packaging in Australia before going ahead with legislation in the UK. The 'wait and see' argument is an example of many arguments used by Tobacco Companies against plain packaging legislation. The announcement was met with disappointment from the public health field and health charities and criticism from MPs regarding Lynton Crosby's links with the tobacco industry.
Vivienne Nathanson, Director of Professional Activities, British Medical Association
"This is another example of a Government which claims to have prioritised public health putting vested interests over those of the public."
Sarah Wollaston, GP
"RIP public health. A day of shame for this government; the only winners big tobacco, big alcohol and big undertakers." [Tweet]
Diane Abbott, MP, Labour, Shadow Public Health Minister
"Once again we see a Government which has completely lost its way on public health and caved in to big business and we are seeing today the health of the nation sacrificed to the interests of big tobacco."
The following called for Crosby to leave his post as advisor to David Cameron:
Paul Burstow, MP, Liberal Democrats
"Lynton Crosby cannot remain at the heart of government while he is also serving the interests of the tobacco industry. If he does not go the prime minister should sack him."
Stephen Williams, MP, Liberal Democrats, Chairman of the all party group on smoking and health
"It is a massive conflict of interest to have someone who works for the tobacco industry at the heart of government. The prime minister should be considering whether he believes Crosby's position as tenable."
Government U-Turn on Plain Packaging: November 2013On 28 November 2013, the Government announced that they would once more consider plain packaging for tobacco products. This move followed an indication that the House of Lords would support a recent cross-party amendment to the Children and Families Bill demanding plain packaging within six months. The proposed amendments to the Children and Families Bill were publish on 17th December 2013 (See Image 3).
In November, Health Minister, Jane Ellison announced that there would be a short review of the emerging evidence base, by Sir Cyril Chantler, a paediatrician, which would conclude in March 2014.
Media reports speculated that the Government’s U-turn is a cynical political move to protect itself from defeat in the House of Lords over the issue and from criticism from the pro-plain packaging movement within the Labour Party in the build-up to the 2015 General Election.
Responding to Parliamentary questions on the matter, Health Minister Ellison suggested that, if the emerging evidence following the introduction of plain packaging in Australia was sufficiently in favour of plain packaging, then legislation may be introduced relatively quickly.
- "I have looked at the draft schedule, and if the Government were minded to go forward with this policy, I see no reason why it could not be put through before the end of this Parliament."
In the week following the announcement of a rapid review of the evidence, a report was published by the Free Enterprise Group supported by 37 MPs which called for the Government to drop proposals for plain packaging tobacco products (See the Free Enterprise Group page for the list of members). The aforementioned quote is the only time plain packaging features in the 28 page report which focused on ‘the growth of Britain’s small businesses.’ No evidence is presented to support the Free Enterprise Group’s recommendation. Furthermore the Free Enterprise Group is provided administrative support by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). The IEA receives financial support from the tobacco industry.
On 10 February 2014, UK Parliament accepted amendments to the Children and Families Bill, which will enable the Government to:
- 1. Introduce regulations requiring plain packaging for tobacco products;
- 2. Introduce regulations making it an offence to sell e-cigarettes to children under 18;
In the whipped vote, 453 MPs voted in favour of the amendments and only 24 voted against.
Sir Cyril Chantler Conclusion
Sir Chantler concluded:
"Having reviewed the evidence it is in my view highly likely that standardised packaging would serve to reduce the rate of children taking up smoking and implausible that it would increase the consumption of tobacco. I am persuaded that branded packaging plays an important role in encouraging young people to smoke and in consolidating the habit irrespective of the intentions of the industry."(p6)
Health Minister Ellison announced in the House of Commons that the Government would, as a result of the Chantler report, conduct another brief Consultation on the proposed legislation.
The shadow Health Secretary Luciana Berger was unhappy with another consultation, stating, "There is an overwhelming body of evidence in favour of standardised packaging and there can be no excuse for a further delay."
Final 'Short' Consultation Published
On 26 June 2014, the Government published the 'Consultation on the introduction of regulations for standardised packaging of tobacco products'. In her statement on the publication of the Consultation, Public Health Minister Jane Ellison noted the Chantler Report concluded that the introduction of plain (standardised) packaging would have a ‘positive impact on public health.’  She stated that a ‘short, final consultation’ would run for six weeks until 7 August 2014 before making a decision on whether to introduce plain packaging. For more information, read the TobaccoTactics page on the Second Consultation.
More Government U-Turns in 2014
Following the two public consultations, the UK Government drafted regulations and notified the European Union (EU) of its intent to introduce plain packaging on 29th August 2014. As part of the notification process, the EU has six months, up until March 2, 2015, to consider eleven detailed responses received from other EU member states on the regulations (namely Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.)  Pending approval from the EU, the UK government would have to finalise its plans for plain packaging very shortly afterwards in order for the regulation to be passed before the May 2015 General Elections.
Government Assurances of Moving Ahead With Plain Packaging
The government has the power to introduce plain packaging regulations under Section 94 of the Children and Families Act 2014. All members of the House of Lords voted in favour of the measure and only 24 MPs in the House of Commons voted against it. 
On the 25 November Health Minister Jane Ellison assured that “we are minded to move forward on this [plain packaging], and we want to make progress.”
Despite Assurances, Little Action and Lots of Excuses
Somewhat contrasting to her prior statements, on 16 December Ellison responded to a Parliamentary question about the introduction of plain packaging with less certainty:
- “The Government has not yet made a final decision on whether to introduce standardised packaging of tobacco products. The Government continues to consider carefully all issues relevant to the introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco products and a decision will be taken in due course. The United Kingdom notified the draft regulations under the EU Technical Standards Directive (Directive 98/34/EC). Pursuant to this Directive, the regulations cannot be made until after the notification ‘standstill’ period has ended on 2 March 2015. If the Government does decide to proceed with standardised packaging, a decision will then be made as to the appropriate Parliamentary timetable for the proposed regulations.”
While the UK government is awaiting the EU’s decision, there are a number of steps it can take in the meantime to assure prompt passage of plain packaging regulation ahead of the General Election. Each of these steps must be completed by a certain date if the UK government is to pass the regulations in time, yet very little, if anything, is happening in the meantime. According to an ASH policy briefing, the following steps would need to happen in accordance with the timeline below in order for the regulation to be passed before May 2015:
- a.Consideration of the Impact Assessment on the Regulations, by the Regulatory Policy Committee. The Committee expects to report to the Department of Health by Wednesday 24th December
- b.Cabinet decision on Regulations through Home Affairs Cabinet Committee, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister (Nick Clegg MP). The write round for Cabinet clearance via correspondence must start by Wednesday 14th January, as the process lasts at least six working days.
- c.Home Affairs Cabinet Committee decision, by Wednesday 21st January
- d.Regulations MUST be laid in Parliament by Friday 23rd January
- e.Parliament’s Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments must receive Regulations by Monday 26th January, for consideration on Wednesday 4th February
- f.Regulations must be considered by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC), which meets on a Tuesday. This usually happens two to three weeks after Regulations are laid, so most likely on Tuesday 10th February
- g.Latest date for SLSC to publish its report: Thursday 26th February
- h.Monday 2nd March: end of EU notification period
- i.Tuesday 3rd March: first date for Parliamentary vote
- j.Thursday 26th March: last sitting day of this Parliament.
In the meantime, the tobacco industry has been aggressively lobbying the UK government against the regulation . Most recently the industry has disingenuously misused evidence to suggest that plain packaging does not work by promoting a statistically insignificant finding as proof that youth smoking rates in Australia have increased since the introduction of the policy in December 2012.
In December 2014, nearly 4,000 public health professionals signed an open letter, sent to both the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, insisting that plain packaging regulations be approved before the forthcoming election. The authors of the letter warned: “More than half a million children have taken up smoking since the government first announced it would consult on plain standardised packaging of cigarette packs in 2011, and every day hundreds more join them.”
In the letter, the government explanation that little can be done until the six-month European Commission notification period is complete is described as an “excuse for further delay” and a “complete red herring.” MPs have also voiced similar concerns over the delays to implementation and underlined the urgent need to move forward with passing the regulation.
Despite evidence that plain packaging in Australia is meeting its objectives vast support of plain packaging within the UK Parliament and some Parliamentary disapproval over the delay, as of January 12 2015, the government had yet to take any of the above steps.
UK Government Announces Backing of Plain Packaging
On January 21, 2015, the UK Government announced it would proceed with plain packaging legislation. Explaining the Government's support, Ellison said:
- "Having considered all the evidence, the Secretary of State and I believe that the policy [plain packaging] is a proportionate and justified response to the considerable public health harm from smoking tobacco. The Chief Medical Officer has confirmed this view.
- I now propose that we lay regulations for standardised packaging in this Parliament to allow for them to come into force at the same time as the European Tobacco Products Directive in May 2016. In doing so we would be bringing the prospect of our first smoke-free generation one step closer."
Ellison said a free vote would be open to MPs in both Houses before the May, allowing the legislation to come into force before the General Elections if voted through.
Reiterated Public Support for Plain Packaging
On the same day the UK Government made its announcement, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) released the latest figures from a survey of 1800 British Adults revealing that 72% were in support of plain packaging across a broad political spectrum (75% of both prospective Conservative and Labour voters, 80% of Liberal Democrats and 64% of UKIP supporters supported the measure). Only 15% were opposed.
Plain Packaging Legislation Passed in the UK Parliament
On Wednesday 11 March 2015, MP’s in The House of Commons voted in favour of standardised packaging (367 for and 113 against). The measure was broadly supported by Labour and Liberal Democrats with opposition coming from Conservative representatives. The legislation, which was subsequently accepted into the House of Lords on Monday 16th March, ensures that tobacco packets will be of uniform size, shape and design featuring only brand name and graphic health warnings. The measures will come into effect on 20th May 2016 alongside the EU Tobacco Products Directive.
Since plain packaging regulation was proposed in the UK the tobacco industry has continuously lobbied the government against the legislation  and threatened to take legal action should the legislation come into force. When plain packaging regulation was introduced in Australia in 2012, the tobacco industry launched an expensive legal campaign against the measures; the claims were dismissed by the High court and costs were awarded in favour of the Australian government. Despite these threats, legal opinion commissioned by Action for Smoking and Health (ASH) UK and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) that was published in May 2015 found that plain packaging laws proposed in the UK were in line with EU law regarding trademarks and fundamental rights and concluded that tobacco companies would not be entitled to compensation where countries introduce legislation to protect public health.
Tobacco Industry Launches Legal Campaign Against UK Government
Phillip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT) filed separate lawsuits challenging plain packaging in the UK on 22nd May 2015. The cases were taken against the British Government for projected losses in income, subsequent to the introduction of plain packaging legislation in March 2015. The tobacco companies argued that the new legislation is in breach of intellectual property and in violation of UK and European Law. Lawyers for the companies have drawn on legal opinion PMI commissioned from Lord Hoffman, the former senior Appeal Court judge, which concluded that banning the use of branding on cigarette packaging altogether could be a breach of trademark law, and that rejecting a company’s right to use an internationally recognised trademark in the UK could be in breach of the principle of free movement of goods within the European Union (EU).
As stated above, a legal opinion commissioned by ASH UK concluded that there were no grounds for a legal case under European Law and that tobacco companies therefore would not be entitled to compensation. Deborah Arnott, Executive of ASH, said in when discussing the tobacco companies’ legal campaign against plain packaging:
- "The tobacco industry knows it has little or no chance of winning but by threatening legal action it is trying to stop the infection spreading to other countries. Standardised plain packaging threatens the profitability of the industry and they are desperate to prevent other countries from following the example set by Australia, the UK and Ireland.”
On 26 May 2015, Japan Tobacco International (JTI), the UK’s second largest cigarette company by market share , joined the legal battle and filed High Court action on the basis that standardised packaging measures infringed the UK’s obligations under World Trade Organisation rules. Daniel Torreas, Managing Director JTI UK, claimed that “plain packaging will infringe [our] fundamental legal rights without reducing smoking. Despite the lack of evidence that plain packaging works, the Government has decided to proceed and JTI must now protect its rights in the courts”
- See Plain Packaging in Australia and Countering Industry Arguments against Plain Packaging for more information.
Relevant TobaccoTactics Resources
For more information on plain packaging see:
- The Plain Pack Group, A Coordinated Industry Response to Plain Packaging
- A list of pages in the category Plain Packaging in the UK
- For a summary of relevant peer-reviewed research, see Tobacco Control Research Group: Evidence on Plain Packaging
- ‘It will harm business and increase illicit trade’: an evaluation of the relevance, quality and transparency of evidence submitted by transnational tobacco companies to the UK consultation on standardised packaging 2012, K. Evans-Reeves, J. Hatchard, A. Gilmore, 2015, Tobacco Control, 24(e2), e168-e177, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2014-051930
- International trade law, plain packaging and tobacco industry political activity: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, G. Fooks, A. Gilmore, 2014, Tobacco Control, 23(1), e1, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2012-050869
- A critical evaluation of the volume, relevance and quality of evidence submitted by the tobacco industry to oppose standardised packaging of tobacco products, J. Hatchard, G. Fooks, K. Evans-Reeves, S. Ulucanlar, A. Gilmore, 2014, BMJ Open 4(2), e003757, doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-003757
- Representation and Misrepresentation of Scientific Evidence in Contemporary Tobacco Regulation: A Review of Tobacco Industry Submissions to the UK Government Consultation on Standardised Packaging, S. Ulucanlar, G. Fooks, J. Hatchard, A. Gilmore, 2014, PLOS Medicine, 11(3), e1001629, doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001629
- How do corporations use evidence in public health policy making? The case of standardised tobacco packaging, J Hatchard, K. Evans-Reeves, S. Ulucanlar, G. Fooks, A. Gilmore, 2013, Lancet, 382(s3), S42, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62467-8
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