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 339.

    Another broken promise from our government as a result of pressure from big business. Now we can add tobacco companies to the list of banks, newspapers and the rest of the lobbists whom our goverment puts before the wellbeing of our society.
    Its digraceful how much our government is in big business's pockets. Its so blatantly obvious too and nothing gets done about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    The hysteria about smoking has gone on long enough. The 'evidence' concerning second-hand smoke is highly dubious & a biased outcome was sought from the outset. It would never stand up in a court. This plain-packaging endeavour by the do gooders is absolute nonsense. There is zero evidence to support it. Frankly, we've heard enough from the ghastly Diane Abbott - thank heavens she's not on TV now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    Advertising plays a big role in glamoring smoking and it very hard to advertise an unlabeled product.
    I don't think plain packaging will deter people that already smoke but it may help people not star.
    Smoking tobacco is arguably more dangerous than cannabis so there is a case that should just be banned but in the meantime anything that makes it harder to sell is good.

  • Comment number 336.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    Goverment bought off by fag /drinks companys simple as that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    Everyone hating smokers again, same old same old... I'm not a smoker but I would rather spend a few hours in a locked garage with someone chain-smoking than someone with their car engine running.

    Call me crazy, but I would like to do neither!

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    This u-turn on cigarette packaging is more proof that the UK government is morally (if not financially) bankrupt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    The whole idea is ridiculous. Go to your local newsagent, and look at all the packs. Say "ooh, that one looks nice, I think I'll start smoking". Observe reaction from the staff. Post results here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    I find it irritating when I put on a film and at some point a character obviously lights up. It adds nothing to the screenplay and looks awfully like product placement - not a brand, just smoking itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    Money rules.

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    Do some people seriously think that anyone buys cigarettes because they're in a packet with a logo on them? Fine, I suppose it might attract young children but it's already illegal to sell them to children anyway so if that's an issue then try enforcing the current law instead of inventing stupid new ones. Good idea to drop this daft nannying proposal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    Labour lost millions of votes when they introduced the smoking ban.If they want to get those lost voters back they should keep quiet about further restrictions on smokers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    1 Minute ago
    The government is being both pathetic and disgraceful in announcing this cowardly decision. Ok Let's wait until more young kids start smoking before taking the right decision,

    For goodnes sake, parents, parent your kids. Its not the governments job

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    We all have the power to bring down any corporation, just don't buy their product..they will cease to exist, even if you can delay or cut back on buying it will have a massive damaging effect

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    (2) Always considering others if smoking in a confined space I always smoke by an open window, never in the presence of those whom object.
    As for this government capitulating to the Barons, of course they submit to their master corporations.
    Whom I despise are those that use smoking as weapon against those that do. Usually despicable none entities who clutch at any form of power over others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    The motorway footbridge close to my house was notorious for suicides. About a decade ago, after 8 fatalities in 3 months, the council fully enclosed the bridge. This has cut the rate to about 1 a year. Government money well spent? Or, does the victim have the right to land on your bonnet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    There is no evidence whatsoever to say that branding encourages kids to smoke, there are many factors why they start, I started mainly due to being intrigued by it and wondering what it was like nothing to do with the packaging!

    It will make no difference if they remove packaging at all if people want to smoke they will, and may that continue its your own free choice at the end of the day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    If this point already has been made, then sorry for the repetition, but the government is saying that they've got this far but haven't kept in touch with how Australia's campaign is going? So, the government supports the idea of being out of touch, then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    I have worked in cancer care hospitals and hospices for 20 years plus & seen countless numbers of people die prematurely because of smoking. Everyone I ever spoke to regretted ever starting. My own parents died prematurely of smoking. Anything & everything that helps stop people starting in the first place is a move in the right direction. This latest govt u-turn is a disgrace. Lynton Crosby!

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    Most of the smokers I know of my age had non-smoking parents. Most of the fiercely non-smokers from 20 years back had parents who smoked. Awareness of smoking related diseases was pretty good even when I started, but teenagers are invincible so hey I didn't expect to make it to 50 anyway. What they need is a high glamour film that makes smoking completely unglamourous but without "lecturing"


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