The recent free vote in the House of Commons on plain cigarette packaging was a historic chance for the UK to join other forward-thinking countries in putting the lives of its citizens above the short-term interests of corporations. I am extremely glad that the regulations were approved.
In the run up to the vote, much of the discussion around this issue has amounted to little more than political point-scoring about the role of government intervention in free markets. In contrast, I have always been clear that plain cigarette packaging is nothing more than a simple public health choice. The desire to force a decision on this issue led me to hold an adjournment debate on plain packaging in the House of Commons earlier this year. To my surprise, the Government agreed to yesterday’s vote, ending two years of vacillation on the issue.
Plain packaging is not without its critics. MPs have been deluged by lobbying material from the big tobacco groups, urging us not to vote through the regulations. From complaining that plain packaging would result in a boom in counterfeiting to the downright silly claim that its introduction would lead to increased queuing in shops, the tobacco lobby has thrown every argument at the campaign for change. The essential issue is this: plain (or, rather, heavily standardised) packaging lessens the chance of young people starting smoking and reduces the number of cigarettes consumed by those who already smoke.
Sadly, Glasgow has one of the worst records for smoking-related premature deaths in the country. Of those who take up smoking, only about half will manage to stop before they die, and two thirds of current smokers started before they were 18 years old, so the early teenage years are the key period to hook people into the habit. In Glasgow, according to the latest Scottish Public Health Observatory’s tobacco control profile there were over 1,900 deaths from lung cancer in 2012 alone and almost 47,000 smoking-attributable hospital admissions over that year. Almost 28% of the city’s population smokes against the Scottish national average of 23%. Plain packaging will help change this.
The UK should have been at the forefront of bringing in this legislation internationally. Thankfully, this vitally important reform now has a future in our country. The result will be a healthier population, less strain on the NHS and fewer preventable deaths and illnesses.