A double whammy for the Treasury (and the trade)
I continue to be very angry at Andrew Lansley’s intrusive and prescriptive approach to cigarette packaging. He says that he wants a consultation on the issue, but at the same time he supports the “Plain Packaging Protects” campaign.
I object first because there is no evidence that this statement is true. A cigarette from a plain pack is no safer or more dangerous than one from a branded pack. He is assuming that plain packs will reduce consumption, but I have seen no evidence to support the idea.
I object secondly because of his hypocrisy and cynicism in pretending to call for a consultation when he has clearly made up his mind.
But I object most of all because this is a profoundly anti-libertarian, illiberal move which defies the fundamental right to free speech.
All the usual caveats: I personally hate smoking, and I wish everyone would give up. I know all about the health risks. But I recognise that a quarter of the people I represent choose to smoke, despite the fact that 99.9% of them are perfectly well aware of the dangers. Free people have a right to do dangerous things, whether it’s mountaineering or hang-gliding or bungee-jumping. I don’t choose to do any of those things, but I defend the freedom of those who do.
The industry makes the point that plain packs will be a field-day for counterfeiters. The bad guys are quite clever at copying branded packs, but plain packs will be so much easier. This will increase the already worrying level of counterfeit (and therefore more dangerous) cigarettes, which also deprive the Treasury of substantial revenues.
But there is another point that I have not yet seen aired in the debate. Even if we mandate plain packaging in the UK, branded packs will be available elsewhere in the world. I don’t claim to understand smokers’ psychology, but I suspect that getting hold of branded packs will become a status symbol (a bit like GB plates on cars fifty years ago). Cigarettes are often shared — wouldn’t you rather hand round a golden pack of Benson & Hedges, rather than a nameless grey austerity pack? Perhaps branded packs will sell under-the-counter at a premium.
So now there will be a two-pronged attack on Treasury tobacco revenues (and by the same token on the turnover of legitimate cigarette retailers). First from counterfeiters whose business will boom. And second from legal and illegal imports of cigarettes from countries with branded packs. And all in the hope of health benefits which may never materialise.
Smokers have suffered enough. They are one of the few remaining groups against whom it is legal to discriminate. They have rights too. And it is up to all of us to come to their defence. When Lansley is finished with the smokers — he’ll come after the drinkers next.