Friday 29 November 2013

Cross party to clear the packs

A guest posting by Baroness Tyler

Moving amendments to legislation in the Lords can often feel like an interesting and worthy - but ultimately pointless - activity as often nothing changes.

Not so this week!. I was one of the cross party group of peers who moved an amendment to the Children and Families Bill last week to introduce powers to bring in regulations on standard packaging for cigarettes. My fellow peers were Ilora Finlay (crossbench), Richard Faulkner (Labour), and Ian McColl (Conservative). In the Commons it has also been genuinely cross party endeavour, the campaign being led by MPs including Paul Burstow and Stephen Williams as well as Bob Blackman (Conservative) and Kevin Barron (Labour).

1 December, is the anniversary of the introduction of plain, standardised packaging of cigarettes in Australia. Ireland is going ahead next year as is Scotland, and the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Health Minister have all stated their support. I’m therefore delighted that the Government -finally and after much procrastination - has now decided to propose an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, to give the Secretary of State for Health powers to bring in regulations on standard packs to protect children's health.

I don’t really care that much whether it was all about Lynton Crosby or the fear of an imminent defeat in the House of Lords on our amendment. The fact is that the Government – and in particular No 10 - saw the light and changed its mind. The press coverage, predictably, is all about U turns rather than the substance of the change in the law and the undoubted health benefits to many children and young people both now and in the future.

Each year around 200,000 under 16year olds take up smoking , resulting for many in serious health problems in later life and, for some, premature death from smoking related diseases. Of current smokers, more than two thirds report that they started before they were 18 years old, and almost two fifths before they were 16.

The tobacco industry needs these new smokers, as its existing customers quit, become ill or die prematurely. The impact of standardised packs in Australia is already clear. They reduce the mistaken belief that some brands are safer than others, are less attractive to young people and have improved the effectiveness of health warnings. There is a reason why the tobacco lobby has been so incensed by the amendments to the Bill – they know that the design of cigarette packages is a very effective advertising tool.

Most worryingly, it is a tool that is particularly effective on young people. The groups that are most susceptible to the advertising ploys of tobacco manufacturers are also some of society’s most vulnerable; groups to whom the state has a duty of care including children in care. Teenage mothers are another group with a high incidence of smoking, being six times more likely than the average pregnant woman to smoke throughout their pregnancy.

We’re all familiar with the rhetoric of the tobacco lobby and the familiar accusation of the ‘nanny state’ from libertarians about the state poking their noses into the private lives of individuals. They tell us that people know the risks and make an informed choice regarding whether or not to smoke.

The problem is, though, that the choices made by young people aren’t always informed – I’m sure we all know from personal experience that being impressionable is an inescapable part of being young. I certainly remember going into a sweet shop when I was 15 and buying a particular brand of cigarettes simply because I thought it was the most elegant and glamorous! Sad but true.

Well, the tobacco industry knows that too. Industry documents released in the US show that cigarette packaging has been used by the industry for decades to appeal to young people, and even in today’s more highly regulated environment, cigarette producers are still bending the rules regarding packaging.

Yes, I would have preferred it if we could have moved immediately to legislation rather than having another review. But the one announced this week to be led by Sir Cyril Chantler will be short. It’s due to report by March 2014. And I get the impression that decisions will be taken very quickly after that.

In the meantime enabling legislation will be introduced giving the government regulation making powers to bring in regulations on standardised packs. We need to maintain the pressure both inside and outside of Parliament to ensure there is no slippage and that the legislation is on the statute book by the end of 2014 at the latest and plain packs on the shelves by 2015. So let’s not be too churlish about the way we have got to this stage.

This change in the law to introduce standardised packaging will be a landmark public health reform for this country and we should be pleased about that.

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