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 199.

    I cant see how plain packaging will reduce smoking but obviously the tobacco industry think it could.
    Cant help thinking how much influence they have in the present government or if jobs are really more important than something which is proven to be killing people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    Is it perhaps worth pointing out how the government recently caved in on minimum-pricing on alcohol as well?

    It seems to be a bit of a trend.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    I am sick fed up of Government interfering in my life, if want to smoke or drink BOTH of which are lawful pursuits, it is NONE of their business.

    This pathetic attempt to somehow vilify smokers and hide "the dreaded weed" behind screens in shops is pathetic.


  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    If the packaging did not make a difference then the tobacco companies would not mind the ban. Someones palm has been greased.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Packaging makes little difference, the tobacco companies know it, we know it and the government knows it. However, forcing much attention on to trivial matters such as this does have the effect of diverting our attention away from more important issues such as the state of the NHS and the prospect of our supplying arms to Syria. Where should our attention really be focused?

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    The biggest reason for quitting if this change were made would be the pain of standing at the counter while the cashier spends 10 minutes checking the small print looking for the brand you asked for! It's bad enough as it is when a glum face looking over a sea of packaging trying to find the right one.

    Won't somebody please think of the cashiers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    Another example of big business and it's interests being placed before the weel being of the general public. I wonder how much money in political donations this decision cost ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Quite obviously, if branding did not directly relate to increased sales, the tobacco industry would not spend millions on it and fight plain packaging tooth and nail. Luckily for the tobacco industry we have a government completely devoid of ethics, morals+decency and the cigarette industry will continue to keep laughing all the way to the bank (with some Tories protectors along for the ride). .

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Go look at the figures yourself, they're on the government website. The NHS would be out of pocket if smoking was banned. Smoking tax easily covers smoking related costs to the NHS. Yes it's a bad idea (I'm a smoker) but the NHS benefits financially so that argument is a non-starter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    What are the governbent up to ?

    First they regulate the e-cig market and stop thousands of smokers from using a far safer method of nicotine medication to help them give up all together.

    Then weeks later they announce that the devil can carry on painting glitter on his packets of coffin nails.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    Has any one ever reviewed the cost to the NHS of smoking related illnesses compared to the revenue from taxes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    Look, EITHER you ban the stuff completely or you... JUST BLOODY LEAVE US ALONE!

    Pathetic little halfway house initiatives because AS WE ALL KNOW the government gets lots and lots and lots of tax from it!

    Stop trying to tell us its rain when its yellow & it smells!

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    Maybe cigarettes should only be available by some sort of permit quota system. i.e you'd have to attend a smoking clinic every 3 months, get a health checkup, advice on quitting and if you wanted to continue, a prescription for a limited number of cigarettes that you would present every time you purchased tobacco. Cost to be met by a direct levy on tobacco companies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    I see Gideon on the front pages today saying he will not put up taxes if the spivs win the next election. If they do, expect a U Turn around April 2015.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    I aim to avoid being one of over 10,000/15,000 pensioners to die each year from cold, as a smoker I KNOW full well that I will probably die coughing & choking to death, gasping for my last breath & it not coming.

    I know of numerous people who have given up smoking & the change to their bodys has been NEGATIVE, with health IMMEDIATELY taking a downward spiral, NHS etc do NOT tell you THAT

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Both the act of smoking and the trade of cigarettes are legal in the UK. The government are already taxing the industry and consumers at unprecedented levels - this is a step too far.

    Lets prevent future generations from becoming fat alcoholics by applying the same rule to confectionary & alcohol. Or do we live in a free society where people have the right to make their own decisions?

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Hypocricy writ large today.
    School dinners? HYS top votes are to keep nanny state away.
    Smoking? HYS top votes are as to why is the government not intervening more!

    If people want to smoke and kill themselves, let them! Why is it your business? OK so we might have to treat them for terminal cancer at say age 60 but look at the real alternative. Terminal dementia at 75+.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    150.JohnGammon "But it's just as important to educate small children in schools about health so they're reluctant to start smoking in the first place."

    They did this to me at infant school during the early 1970s e.g. making smoking machines with squeezy bottles so you could see the tar collected on the cotton wool. Didn't work for anyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    I'm disgusted by the amount of people here agreeing, with such alacrity, that it's OK for the government to choose:
    a) That smoking should be discouraged; and
    b) To make regulations regarding product packaging in the first place.

    Think about the precedent being set guys, the control the government is exercising.

    Do you want to take personal responsibility for your choices, or not?

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    Crikey, If you don't know that cigarettes are bad for you by now then you deserve the chance to die a horrible death.


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