While the move has been welcomed by doctors and health campaigners, tobacco manufacturers and other interested parties appear to have been united in their condemnation of last week’s announcement that the Government will be pushing through a vote on plain packaging of tobacco products before May’s General Election – meaning that plain packs could be on shelves as soon as 2016.
There are fears among tobacco wholesalers and some retailers that plain packaging could add to workloads and play into the hands of bootleggers and the illicit trade. Although there are indications that wholesaling may be exempt from the regulations [so for example, branded outers would be allowed in tobacco rooms to allow for easier retail selection of products]as they have no contact with consumers, many are still opposed to the introduction of plain packaging.
The Federation of Wholesale Distributors’ official line is: “FWD supports measures to prevent the illegal trade in counterfeit and duty-avoided cigarettes, and initiatives that raise awareness of the health harms associated with smoking. However, we believe legislation to reduce smoking rates among young people must be evidence-based. As there is no compelling evidence of the effectiveness of the current proposal to introduce standardised [plain]packaging for tobacco products, this is bad legislation and should not be adopted.
“Tobacco products in the supply chain upstream of the point of sale cannot influence attitudes to smoking as they are not visible to the public. Standardised packaging in distribution would place a disproportionate burden on wholesalers and retailers without achieving any of the aims of the proposed legislation. Therefore we support the view that packaging that does not reach the consumer should bear manufacturers’ identification, brand names and pricing details.”
Suleman Khonat, the national spokesman for the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance and a Blackburn shopkeeper commented:
“This announcement is a hammer blow to the tens of thousands of small retailers across the country. We are already dealing with the negatives impact of measures such as the display ban but the evidence from Australia shows that plain packaging has led to an increase in smuggled and illicit tobacco. This will damage the incomes of legitimate businesses and make it easier for children to buy tobacco off street corners. Organised criminals don’t care who they sell to or how old they are. The government needs to rethink this decision if it cares about the future of local retailers and the communities that they serve.”
Imperial Tobacco said the Government’s decision “politically motivated” and “contradicts evidence from Australia regarding its success”.
Melvin Ruigrok, general manager of Imperial Tobacco UK said: “The Government should evaluate the effectiveness of current tobacco control measures before proceeding with standardised packaging; where no credible evidence has been forthcoming that it will contribute to improving public health.”
Ruigrok added: “As shown in Australia, standardised packaging in England will merely act as a windfall for criminals looking to profit from the illicit trade; furthermore we will work on strengthening our brands which are defended by national, European and international laws concerning the protection of intellectual property.
“To reassure the trade; as an industry we have effectively and robustly navigated our way through a plethora of tobacco legislation whilst continuing to provide an important category for our trade partners. The Government announcement does not represent a done deal and we will continue to positively and proactively engage with the Government.”
In a statement, JTI added: “JTI strongly considers that plain packaging would be unlawful. It would deprive us of assets worth billions of pounds at a time when the UK Economy appears to be turning the corner.
“It is inexplicable that the Government is rushing to legislate on this important issue, which was opposed by nearly two thirds of the respondents to a public consultation and over 40% of other EU Member States have raised concerns over the plain packaging proposals. JTI and others have repeatedly said that plain packaging would infringe EU requirements on the free movement of goods, violate property and other fundamental rights – including trademark rights – and go against obligations under EU and WTO rules.
“We have no doubt the major crime syndicates across the globe are scrutinising these proposed regulations as the UK Government prepares to provide counterfeiters with a blueprint of exactly how to copy UK tobacco packs in the future. Brand owners of products in any controversial industries should prepare for similar anti-business measures as the Government has now made it clear that regulation will be passed despite the evidence showing that plain packaging doesn’t work.”
The Tobacco Manufacturers Association said calls for plain packaging were based on “dogma”, not evidence.
And UKIP leader Nigel Farage, perhaps inevitably, called the move an “appalling intrusion into consumer choice”.
Mike Ridgway, director of the Consumer Packaging Manufacturers Alliance, added: “This will only be the start of a continual drift towards more controls and regulatory pressure into other consumer markets. In the tobacco sector it started with health warnings, then larger ones with graphical illustrations and so on… the question is how soon will alcohol and other products go the same way?”