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 179.

    Stop picking on me, plain packaging or not, I will continue to smoke as I enjoy it. The government £2,569 gets an extra a year in tax and at the end of a day I don't go out and smash up the town centre or be sick all over the place. I neither abuse the police or my family members. I will probably die a quick death, which I would prefer to a lingering one in a home. Quiet happy, non-drinker.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    As an ex-smoker (10 years clean and not hypocritical about it), packaging isn't the issue and never will be. Advertising was the problem as it made smoking glamourous.
    The real issue is how the NHS deals with stopping people smoking. Wittering on about how people should stop will never work. Smokers will only stop when they are ready to, and then they need proper support to succeed in giving up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Just ban smoking full stop!

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Yet another display of outrage from the Lifestyle Commissariat who are intent on demonising smokers to the point that it is now most certainly persecution.

    And they have the barefaced cheek to complain about the influence of other Lobbyists!

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    "Going off your logic drinkers and fat people should also pay for their own health treatment also."

    And ski-ers should pay to have their broken bones set. And parachutists, and mountain climbers ... the list is endless.

    We can't stop skiers, parachutists and mountain climbers but we can discourage teenagers from life-risking, life threatening addiction,

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    plenty of young teenagers start smoking because it looks 'cool' - that is with the fag in your mouth not the packet in your hand. If it is the pretty packaging making people smoke this can be resolved by hiding them under the counter. This will stop people being drawn in by the packaging - and also not create a counterfeit problem. Plain packaging = easier to sell knock of fags on the cheap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    In my opinion anything that could discourage young people taking up smoking is worth doing. Surely the way that the tobacco companies have lobbied against this demonstrates they they are worried it would have a real impact on their sales. It would be interesting to know how much money reduced rates of smoking would save the NHS. Hunt et al have sacrificied the health of the next generation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    I am not going to go into a shop, look at the cigarette packets and think "that looks nice, I think i'll buy a packet of those" Smoking is declining anyway, stop spending an inordinate amount of time on more legislation

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    How does the "Minister for Murdoch" keep his job. Any other industry he'd have been suspended, then sacked. Now he's running the health service!

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    The government do not want people to stop smoking. They would loose massive tax revenue for their second homes and expenses. If they wanted a healthy nation they would ban it. This is just the usual big boys club. Government and the tabacco companies. Nothing will matter, whatever changes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Remember the old saying - 'He who pays the piper calls the tune'.
    Until we ban all lobbyists and all private and unions monetary support for political parties, we will never have true democracy. When we as taxpayers cover the basic costs of electioneering, WE will at last have some feeling of control over policies.

  • Comment number 168.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    123. David Cook
    does anyone know if any of the cigarette companies are, by coincidence, donors to the conservative party?
    Not just donors. Ken Clarke was a director of British American Tobacco & actively promoted cigarettes in the third world.

    Doubtless even though this is easily verified as true the BBC will deleted it. The truth is usually "libel" on HYS unless its about Blair or Bush

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    As a smoker I must say that I prefer the bright shiny packaging.

    The biggest issue I have is that the tobacco companies have reduced the strenght of the packaging such that the cigarettes can become crushed in your pockets on a night out. I would prefer to see legislation to combat this issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    I am an X Smoker and think peoples human rights should allow smokers to buy their brand in a free society. If people want to spend £6+ for a packet let them. Never forget the government makes a hefty profit from smokers, enough to treat them when they are ill. How many more freedoms are we going to loose?????

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    If you're a smoker of Golden Virginia, such as my self, you'll notice they've been changing between an old retro brand and the original, I still buy it regardless. However, I can easily see how an attractive pack could influence a deicsion on brands for specific people. Even as a smoker I don't think anyone should start and I hope you don't in this day and age!

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    I used to smoke, I gave up 4 years ago. 6 months later, my Dad died of pulmonary emphysema, caused by smoking - he smoked 30 a day since he was 14, he was 62.

    IMO A government either needs to ban outright or up the tax on tobacco products circa £30/ pack & also make it a condition of benefits recipients that they are not allowed to smoke, else lose their benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Not a surprise as the UK government is effectively in cahoots with this evil industry. There's too much revenue from it and money is all they are interested in despite their posturing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Too right- modern Brits have got to be the most easily manipulated people.
    Rest of Europe has far higher standards for advertising esp. to children.
    But don't rest your hopes on UKIP- they represent money 100%. That's why the press keep giving them clever little plugs to boost their vote. And they have the lowest IQ voters!

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    This shows that the multinationals (and banks) run the country. The elected government are their puppets. Lets have a government that represents the electors.
    I support the right of people to smoke. Most are gracious about having to leave enclosed public places to do so. I suspect few of them would object to plain packaging. It's about reducing temptation, but tobacco companies are drug pushers.


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