Campaigners say plain packaging is failing

Campaigners against plain packaging have spoken out a year on from its introduction in the UK, claiming the initiative has failed as it has not met one of its key objectives of reducing smoking levels.

Independent evidence from The Smoking Toolkit Study, a national programme run by University College London and endorsed by the Department of Health, has found that smoking rates have increased since plain packaging was fully introduced last May.

It found that, based on a three-month rolling average from December 2017 to March 2018, smoking rates were higher than at the same time last year, before plain packaging was fully introduced.

The smoking rate among UK adults was reportedly 17.1% in March 2018, up by 0.6% on the 16.5% figure recorded in March 2018.

Additionally, counterfeit plain packaged tobacco products have been found across the UK and a new poll from the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA) of 4,480 smokers has found that plain packaging is encouraging more smokers to buy from the black market.

“Copying plain packs is dead easy to do and they pass off very well – the print expertise needed for that is nothing compared to what it used to be when packs had different features on them such as hot foil stamping, vignettes, embossing, debossing and matt and gloss varnishes,” said Mike Ridgway, director of the Consumer Packaging Manufacturers Alliance.

24% of respondents to the TMA survey said they are aware of illicit tobacco in their local area – up from 20% last year – while 27% agreed that plain packs have made them more likely to buy untaxed tobacco.

Additionally, 44% of respondents agreed that they have no objections to buying untaxed tobacco even when it is from an illegal source.

TMA director general Giles Roca said: “The recent evidence shows that plain packaging appears to be failing in the UK like everywhere it has been introduced.

“It appears not to be delivering the health outcomes it was claimed it would bring while at the same time is proving to be a boon to the black market by encouraging smokers to buy from illicit sources.”

Ridgway added: “Plain packaging is a disproportionate attack on a brand and it destroys the intellectual property of a logo or a brand name or the colours.

“People smoke because they like smoking. The fact that the cigarette packaging has a picture on it doesn’t make any difference to them at all.

“I think the government should review the statistics, analyse what they are losing in revenue, excise and VAT and be bold enough to say ‘we’re very sorry but the experiment hasn’t worked’. I think it should go back to proper health warnings on packs backed up with education, but not the draconian step of plain packaging.”

The current regulations require tobacco companies to sell cigarettes and rolling tobacco in standardised packs that remove all branded features and are covered in graphic health warnings.

The effect of the regulations on print has been substantial, with the UK’s last two tobacco packaging manufacturers – Amcor in Bristol and MPS in Bradford – closing in 2016.

Since the measures were enforced, various health lobbyists and charities have also called for similar legislation to be extended to other sectors, such as alcohol, snack foods, soft drinks and confectionery, with packaging in certain consumer markets attacked for being too glitzy or attractive.