Government rejects Labour's cigarette 'U-turn' claim


George Osborne: "I think it's right that we take our time and get the right decision"

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The government has denied claims it has caved in to the tobacco industry after plans to introduce plain cigarette packaging in England were put on hold.

A decision has been delayed so more time can be spent examining how similar plans have worked in Australia.

Health minister Anna Soubry said she "would never give into pressure" and awaiting more evidence was "sensible".

But Labour said it was a "humiliating u-turn" and questioned the input of Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby.

Health campaigners and doctors groups have criticised the move, which comes as the government confirmed plans to set a minimum price for alcohol in England are to be formally abandoned.

David Cameron was a vocal advocate of minimum pricing as a way of tackling drink-related health and social problems but he appears to have been defeated by ministers who feared it would not work and prove unpopular with voters.

BBC political correspondent Ben Wright suggested the Conservatives were trying to jettison potentially unpopular policies in order to focus on their core economic message in the run up to the next election.

Ministers had also been keen to go ahead with the cigarette packaging proposal, designed to discourage young people from smoking by making the packets less attractive, after the Department of Health held a consultation last year.

Under the plans, the standardised packets would all be the same colour, with the same font, and carry a prominent graphic warning.


But Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government wanted to see how the policy had worked in Australia, the first country to introduce plain packaging last year, before making a "final decision".


"The evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers."

That was the view of Andrew Lansley, then Health Secretary in 2010.

Since then the government has held a consultation, before which it said it was open-minded.

Now the idea will be put on pause, with no timetable for making a final decision.

Ministers will say they want to see how the policy works in Australia.

Labour says the government just wants to "please its friends in big business".

And with the opposition targeting the Conservative election strategist Lynton Crosby, they will seek to make this an argument not just about public health, but lobbying.

He said a public consultation on the issue, the details of which have been published on Friday, had shown that the debate was "highly polarised" with "strong views" about the effectiveness of the policy on both sides.

In an urgent question in the Commons, shadow health minister Dianne Abbott said the "disgraceful" announcement showed the government had "caved in to big business" and the "health of the nation has been sacrificed to the interests of big tobacco".

"We have to ask on this side of the House what happened," she added. "We suspect that Lynton Crosby happened."

Mr Crosby's lobbying firm Crosby Textor was employed by British American Tobacco in Australia, but the company said the lobbyists did not work on its campaign against plain packaging there.

Asked what evidence Labour had of Mr Crosby's direct involvement, Mrs Abbott said she was not saying "he is influencing public health decisions per se" but suggested he had told senior Tories that this and other policies would give them "problems with UKIP".

Start Quote

The idea that public health is something which should be scraped off the boat as some election strategists have announced I think is entirely wrong”

End Quote Sarah Wollaston Conservative MP

But health minister Anna Soubry told MPs this was a "complete red herring" since Mr Crosby had not had any conversation with a health minister on the issue.

And No 10 said Mr Crosby had had "no involvement" in the decision and had never lobbied David Cameron on the issue.

The decision was criticised by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, a former GP, who said many advances in public health - such as the ban on smoking in public places - were controversial at the time but now commanded overwhelming public support.

"My view unfortunately is that it's all about election strategy, she told the BBC. "The idea that public health is something which should be scraped off the boat as some election strategists have announced I think is entirely wrong."

But Conservative colleague Peter Bone said "evidence-based" policy making was right and changes should not be "rushed through".

'Key tool'

Cancer Research UK claimed the decision would cost lives while the British Medical Association said it was "deeply disappointing" since packaging was a "key tool" for the industry to attract young smokers.

"This is another example of a government which claims to have prioritised public health putting vested interests over those of the public," Dr Vivienne Nathanson, its director of professional activities, said.

But pro-smokers' group Forest said ministers had "listened to ordinary people" and it was good news for those who "believe in consumer freedom and are opposed to excessive regulation".

The Tobacco Manufacturers Association said the government should look at alternative measures, such as tackling the black-market trade and sales to under-aged smokers.

"Plain packaging would have been an assault on UK business in the midst of difficult economic times," it said. "Plain packs would be far easier to copy and would have therefore been a gift to the criminal gangs behind the increasing illegal trade in tobacco."

The Scottish government says it is "still committed" to introducing plain packaging and is expected to press ahead with its own plans.

The Welsh government said it was "disappointed" by the delay and would consider "the way forward" while the Northern Ireland executive said it would like to see a "UK-wide" response to the issue.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 979.

    Introducing plain packaging is the very least we should do, even if you follow the view that smoking is dangerous but should still be legal just because a sizable minority of the population think smoking is socially acceptable.

    There is no consistency in our drugs laws relating to tobacco and alcohol. Just because some people see them as acceptable doesn't make them any less dangerous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 978.

    I don't even know why we're having this debate on plain packaging, it's ignoring the bigger issue.

    Tobacco (along with alcohol) should become a controlled substance along with all other harmful drugs.

    It brings no benefits to society and ruins peoples lives.

    Just because society see's it as acceptable doesn't mean it is wrong to ban it.

  • Comment number 977.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 976.

    I think it is really sad that after a bad week for them both the Beeb and Labour have to pick on smokers. For labour and beeb supporters, every week is a bad week for the coalition. but there is something strange about politics and publicly funded broadcasters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 975.

    Circus maxima
    I'm sorry to see we just lost Alan Whicker because we just lost Alan Whicker.

  • rate this

    Comment number 974.

    2 Minutes ago

    Non-smokers demanded and got the freedom of choice removed and along with it equality.


    The one-sided "freedom of choice" bleat ignores the way that smokers in a room force non-smokers to breath their exudate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 973.

    Ecigarettes can save the lives of smokers by converting them to a far safer alternative, yet the EU has voted just this week to reclassify them from products consumers can freely buy, to controlled medicines - which will increase prices and reduce the takeup of them by smokers wishing to quit. I hope the Government reject this move by the EU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 972.

    Remove the subsidy for smokers' NHS health treatment. If people knew they had to take responsibility, financial responsibility, for their health choices"

    If what you say is true then you'd see a correlation between smoking levels that are lower in states with insurance based healthcare. Switzerland and the US should have lower smoking than the UK and Scandinavia. Do they? No they don't

  • Comment number 971.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 970.

    Typical - I wonder how much money the TMA pays the Tories in party donations and lobbying rights?

  • rate this

    Comment number 969.

    Smoking harms others, it is physical abuse
    Smoking around children IS child abuse
    Smoking can kill

    Smoking needs to be BANNED and smokers who smoke around others especially children should be dealt with as harshly as anyone who hits or sexually abuses a child

    Smokers- your physical gratification should NEVER come above the health and lives of others

    Packaging change is not enough!

  • rate this

    Comment number 968.

    Quote of the day - George Osborne: "I think it's right that we take our time and get the right decision". Must be a first for a politician! A truer quote would be "Let's make sure our rich friends in the tobacco industry are OK and well, if we kill a few more of the poor, well think of the pension savings"

  • Comment number 967.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 966.

    @ 945 Tio Terry

    Co-existance ends when freedom of choice is removed. The abscence of choice quite obviously creates an inequality and becomes one sided. Non-smokers demanded and got the freedom of choice removed and along with it equality.

    Which is why you donĀ“t see it in my response, and why you should present your argument about co-existance to those that demanded its removal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 965.

    I see they are going to regulate an electric cigarettes that helps you stop smoking
    So Government haven't just bent over to the tobacco companies
    Cameron "Donations do not dictate government policy making"
    No the government sits around the palace gorging themselves whilst they wait for big donors to tell them their policies for them to pass

  • rate this

    Comment number 964.

    955. beammeup
    London - top user of Cocaine! 100's of millions move through the system of banks.

    Sniff,buy sniff, sniff sell, and that's the computers and they think smokers and plain packaging is a problem, well I think we know different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 963.

    Dash, a truly pathetic but recurring theme on the thread is the references to Tory Blur's embracing of the business lobbies.
    Yes, the tories are worse than the tory lites in that respect, but both parties are culpable.
    Surely though, the key point is that corruption inducing corporate lobbying needs to be savagely curtailed, to maybe give Team PAYE a shot at some genuine representation.

  • Comment number 962.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 961.

    A nice anti-smoking ad would be the 12 hr soundtrack to a recent stay in hospital for me

    That being a 60-65 yr old man on oxygen trying to cough up while the nurses come round with a suction machine and suck out the gloop every 2 hrs.

    But then it would'nt affect those who start smoking because they are all teens who either think they look cool smoking or smoke to try and impress their peers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 960.

    I hate smokers my next door neighbours smoke early every morning by their back door living in a terraced house with the prevailing winds blowing towards us I get every morning woken up by the disgusting stench of cigarette smoke coming through my bedroom window its not so bad in the winter but in this weather its intolerable to sleep without the windows open.


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