In April this year, the government launched a UK-wide consultation into whether tobacco should be sold in plain packaging with just large health warnings, devoid of attractive logos and glitzy colours. This is a contentious issue. But as Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heart Disease, working closely with the excellent British Heart Foundation, I think plain packs are an idea worth trying.
Firstly, despite the UK having a comparatively good record in tobacco control, smoking still accounts for the majority of preventable early deaths. Nationally, around half of regular smokers die from a smoking related disease - that's 100,000 people each year, including 25,000 people from heart disease and over 40,000 from cancer. The latest NHS Health Profile for Barnsley, covering my constituency, shows that the number of smoke-related deaths in the Borough is over twice that of the average in England.
Those who oppose plain packaging make a number of claims, but these can be easily discounted. It has been asserted, for example, that plain packaging would be inconvenient to retailers. Yet evidence-based research by academics in Australia found that, if anything, plain packs may moderately reduce transaction times.
Opponents of change also say that plain packaging will help tobacco smugglers as the the packs will be easier to counterfeit. At the moment, the industry is required to put covert markings on all tobacco packs to help thwart counterfeiting. Plain packs would have all the health warnings and other warnings required on current packs and would therefore be no easier to fake.
It has also been questioned whether the introduction of plain packaging would be necessary once advertising at the point of sale has stopped. But cigarette packs that are covered in attractive colours, branding and images still serve to advertise and promote tobacco brands. The plain packaging of tobacco means that all tobacco products would be required to look the same, preventing the packs themselves acting as a "silent salesman" every time they are seen.
Recent evidence shows that the perceptions of children and young people are influenced by tobacco branding. Last year, the British Heart Foundation polled 2,700 16 to 25 year olds in the UK and found that 69 per cent considered packaging to be advertising. Nearly 90 per cent found plain packs the least attractive. The survey also showed that one in six young people would consider the pack design when deciding which cigarettes to buy and one in eight said they would choose a brand because it was considered 'cool'. (You can watch the British Heart Foundation's powerful video on young people's reaction to tobacco packaging here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-sE5RodJaU&feature=youtu.be).
There is also a substantial body of peer-reviewed research which indicates that plain packaging would strengthen the impact of health warnings and help to make the cigarette packs less misleading for both young people and adults.
Tobacco companies need to find over 100,000 new smokers to make up for all the people that die from smoking-related conditions every year. This means it is in their interest to make their product as attractive as possible to new customers. If the packaging has no impact at all, why would the tobacco firms invest so much in branding and packaging in the first place? And why is the industry so opposed to plain packaging other than because they feel it's introduction will hit sales?
The UK has been at the forefront of reducing harm from smoking. The previous Labour government introduced legislation to end smoking in enclosed public spaces and to stop public access to cigarette vending machines and point-of-sale tobacco advertising. As Andy Burnham proposed before the election, the next logical step is to introduce plain, standardised packaging. In doing so, we would close the last remaining avenue of advertising for tobacco companies.
I am careful not to over-claim here. I don't believe that plain packaging is going to stop all young people from starting smoking, but it may well prevent some from doing so. For that reason it has to be worth trying. If you think so too, you can voice your support by responding to the Department of Health's consultation on standardised packaging and signing the British Heart Foundation's petition at bhf.org.uk/tobacco.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heart DiseaseSuggest a correction