Plain Packaging net public health loss

1 CommentThursday, 24 July 2014

24th July 2014

Please find below our response to the Department of Health Consultation on the introduction of standardised packaging for tobacco

The consultation paper can be found at

Dear Sir,

Thank you for providing the opportunity for interested parties to comment on proposals for standardised packaging of tobacco products.

We are a social enterprise that specialises in helping retailers to tackle under age sales. We provide support, training, point-of-sale materials and advice to retailers. This includes support funded by the trade associations, industries and manufacturers of age restricted products, including the tobacco industry. All of the products that we deal with are highly controversial – that’s part of the reason why they are age restricted – be they alcohol, gambling, knives, fireworks or indeed tobacco.

We are happy for our response to be published in full and we will also publish our response on our website at In addition, we would ask that any quotes taken from our response are used in the context in which they are intended and we would be happy to advise if the context is not clear.

Net public health loss of standardised packaging
We consider that in line with Sir Cyril Chantler’s report there is potential for some public health gain with plain packaging but equally we consider there are some significant risks to public health with the approach. Our principal concern is that the net effect of plain packaging – particularly in relation to accessibility and attractiveness of tobacco for children – could actually lead to detriment. We would like to see much clearer evidence of a significant public health gain before taking such a risky decision.

We accept that if even one child is diverted from smoking by not being attracted to the glossy packaging that is a public health gain. However, this must be balanced against every child that is attracted to smoking from easier access to cigarettes through illicit sources or lax retail standards.

We reject Sir Cyril’s conclusion that UK law enforcement is effective at reducing and eliminating illicit trade. The massive cuts to local authority trading standards budgets and a huge reduction in tobacco enforcement activity over the last four years make such a conclusion illogical.

In March 2014, the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) published a workforce survey  which showed alarming levels of cuts to law enforcement – reaching an average of 40% over the lifetime of this Parliament. The Department of Health-funded tobacco control research project (also carried out by TSI) also demonstrates substantial cuts in both the availability of enforcement resource and the range of enforcement activity by local trading standards .

Enforcement activity is not only curtailed by austerity cuts, but also significantly hampered by the Government’s misguided attempts at restricting surveillance activity through reforms to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2001. In many areas (although interestingly not all) this is interpreted as requiring a magistrates’ warrant in order to undertake enforcement surveillance – such as test purchasing of cigarettes by children.

The ability of local law enforcement to even carry out routine unannounced visits to retail premises to check the providence of products is further threatened. The Consumer Rights Bill (currently before the House of Lords) removes the ability for trading standards officers to carry out unannounced inspections, giving retailers notice and time to hide any counterfeit products.

We recently analysed the combination of these factors on law enforcement activities in NW England (alongside a project to provide additional support to NW retailers). All NW authorities were asked to provide copies of their annual reports on tobacco enforcement activity under s.5 of the Children and Young Persons (Protection from Tobacco) Act 1991. Most authorities responded, but showed alarming cuts in activity – particularly on under age sales enforcement activity over the last three years. On average, the cuts were 33.5% between 2011/12 and 2013/14 – that is in line with the national picture shown by the TSI report. We would be happy to share the results of our research.

Overall, there are in our view many more factors tending against a public health gain from plain packaging than there are tending in favour. In our view, the key government decision is to get this balance right. It cannot be taken in isolation, but must be placed in the context of the market place as a whole.

The premise of Sir Cyril Chantler’s report that access to tobacco through illicit and alternate sources can be addressed by the effective enforcement regime in the UK is wholly undermined by these deep and substantial cuts to UK law enforcement budgets and increases in administrative burdens on them.

The concept that plain packaging will not lead to a bonanza for the counterfeiters is far fetched at best and naïve at worst. Of course, plain packaging removes a significant logistical and practical barrier that counterfeiters have to overcome (i.e. the printing complexity of the wide range of current tobacco packages). We know, as has been evidenced many times, that increasing illicit supply also increases availability for children and young people. It seems to us to be counter-intuitive that it can be claimed that plain packs will result in fewer children accessing tobacco.

Disinvestment in retail compliance support
We are concerned that the tobacco control lobby and the tobacco manufacturers lobby are at opposite ends of increasingly polarised and damaging policy positions. In our role, perhaps on the middle ground, we see effective tobacco regulation and control as a sound approach to improving public health, but we are clear that the tobacco industry are critical to success in achieving that. The prohibitionist agenda is fundamentally flawed and would lead from a clearly regulated product in a structured industry to a wholly unregulated illicit product.

In essence, you need a functioning, lawful and operational tobacco market with legitimate operators to have any hope of furthering tobacco control initiatives.

The market for cannabis in the UK is a prime example of what the tobacco industry would look like without the legitimacy of the tobacco manufacturers and retailers – only on a massively bigger scale. You cannot easily take a product used regularly by 20% of the population, notwithstanding the clear health risks of that, and remove it. Even if half of them simply gave up if they couldn’t buy from their local retailer – that leaves a wholly illicit market covering 4-5m smokers and valued at around £3bn per year. A lot of money to put into the pockets of criminals.

Retailers face a battle to maintain justification for stocking a relatively low yield product, where they have already expended a huge amount in duty paid against a growing illicit market. The display ban, plain packaging and increased taxation will all eventually contribute to making this an unviable market for retailers to operate in. That is a huge and substantial risk to public health.

So another major concern for us is the risk of disinvestment in the market by the legitimate tobacco companies and retailers. If they lose their trademarks, have innovation squeezed and become mere distribution functionaries, it is our fear that they will disinvest in initiatives to help reduce smoking prevalence, such as schemes to support retailers in preventing under age sales. The success of the No ID No Sale point-of-sale materials (used by many local trading standards authorities), retailer support initiatives, training support and other help and assistance have all been supported by reinvestment of tobacco takings (either at retailer or manufacturer level) in reducing youth access. The tobacco manufacturers have spent £1.29m establishing these schemes.

Notwithstanding this, it is clear to us that much more needs to be done to restrict the access children have to cigarettes. Legitimate retailers are the front line in making significant and, on a scale, much higher public health gains than standardised packaging would ever deliver. Retailers need support with this and it is absolutely right that manufacturers and distributors of these products use some of their profits to fund this support. That is what we provide.

So, in summary, our overall view is that:

1. Every single child that does not take up smoking as a result of unattractive tobacco packaging is a positive public health gain; but

2. Every single child that has improved access to tobacco (either through other sources or lax retail standards) because the packs are standardised making life easier for the illicit trade is a public health loss;

On balance, our view is that more children will fall into category two than category one and thus, the net effect of standardised packaging will be a significant public health loss. We conclude this for the following reasons:

1. We fear that the tobacco industry will disinvest in supporting initiatives in the UK market to reduce the take up of smoking by children – leading to lax retail standards;

2. We fear that the already significant cuts to local authority trading standards budgets (some as high as 80%) have fundamentally undermined the ability to keep illicit sources constrained and maintain high quality support for legitimate retailers;

3. We do not consider that there are enough children who would not be attracted to tobacco purely as a result of plain packaging to mitigate these risks.

The Government would achieve proportionately much higher public health gains by properly and proactively enforcing the raft of tobacco control measures already introduced rather than simply moving on to the next big idea. We have good tobacco control legislation in the UK already. It has the potential to make a real difference to the future health prospects of our children. It is being fundamentally undermined by distractions of effort and resource to justify yet more farfetched policy initiatives such as plain packaging. The Government should focus its attention on effective enforcement of the rules that are already in place.

Proposed Regulations
We have only one comment on the proposed Regulations. In our view, if the government are to introduce standardised packaging then all of that packaging should contain information about the age restriction in place. In our view, a circle with ‘18’ crossed through would suffice, but could be supported with words that ‘this product must not be sold to any person under 18 years of age’ – we accept the limitations of space on product packaging.

It seems surprising to us that the Department of Health are not proposing to include the age restriction on proposed standardised packaging.

We are happy to declare that our services, in providing training and support to retailers to prevent under age sales, are funded by those retailers (including tobacco retailers) and by trade associations and manufacturers (including the tobacco industry). However, our views are our own and our overall view on standardised packaging remains neutral, awaiting sufficient evidence to justify a decision. We have not been funded, commissioned or otherwise encouraged to provide this response to you by the tobacco industry or any of their representatives.

We hope that the information that we have provided is useful and we would be happy to discuss any aspects of our response further. I can be contacted on 0161 443 4111 or

Tuesday, 5 August 2014  |  17:01

Looking good!