Pain but no gain from plain packs

Westminster surprised many when it said it would look again at plain packaging on tobacco. In Scotland the powers that be are ready to start the legislative ball rolling

SGF public affairs adviser John Lee.
SGF public affairs adviser John Lee.

IT is widely expected that this month will see the publication of the Scottish Government’s consultation on the plain packaging of tobacco products.

Introducing plain (or standardised) packaging is a key element in the Scottish Government’s current Tobacco Control Strategy, which aims to create a ‘tobacco-free Scotland’ by 2034. This is an ambitious target and preventing young people from taking up smoking is the only realistic way it can be achieved. The attractiveness of packaging, so the Scottish Government would have us believe, plays a crucial part in encouraging young people to smoke. In our view the evidence for this is far from clear. Typically, research studies are based on perception and show simply that some young people find some packaging to be more or less attractive – it is extremely difficult to establish a causal relationship between packaging and the decision to start smoking.
There is much uncertainty about how the Scottish Government can actually introduce plain packaging; it is difficult to see, for example, how the Scottish Government can control the import of tobacco products. Nevertheless retailers will undoubtedly bear the brunt of any legislation. We know from our colleagues at the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores that transaction times are being delayed, there are serious problems with stock identification on delivery and that while overall consumption has not been affected, customers are switching to cheaper brands and margins are being reduced even further. The legislation makes provision for very harsh penalties on retailers, with fines in excess of A$200,000 for non-compliance. In the meantime the evidence from Australia shows no reduction in the levels of smoking.
The impact on retailers is a key concern for the Scottish Grocers’ Federation but just as importantly we have a wider concern that plain packaging will prove to be an ineffective policy that is simply not relevant to the smoking-related issues we have in Scotland. One of these key issues is that most young people obtain cigarettes by means of a proxy purchase. Unfortunately there are adults who, for various reasons, are willing to buy cigarettes for young people. The packaging of particular brands plays absolutely no part in these illegal transactions. Affordability is all that matters and the real problem is lack of enforcement.
Another is that the illicit trade in tobacco is already a problem in Scotland; empty pack surveys indicate that about 12% of products in Scotland are illicit. Plain packaging will only benefit the criminals who underpin the trade. HMRC figures show that £2.9 billion in duty is being lost to the illicit trade. All our members accept that tobacco must be regulated and controlled, but this can only be done if tobacco products are made by legitimate manufacturers and sold by responsible retailers.

As we all know, stores in Scotland will have to go dark by 2015

Perhaps most importantly, smoking in Scotland is fundamentally an issue about health inequality: 40% of people in our most deprived communities smoke while this figure drops to 10% in our most affluent communities. Plain packaging will simply do nothing to address this issue.
There is always a heated debate around smoking and this will no doubt intensify when the consultation is launched and the full implications of the proposals are revealed. But the starting point for any debate must be recognition that tobacco is already highly controlled and regulated in Scotland. Smoking is banned in public places. Tobacco is age restricted and the legal age for purchasing was raised to 18 by the Tobacco and Primary Medical Services Act of 2010. The same Act introduced the Tobacco Retail Register – Scotland is the only nation of the UK to have this and anyone who wants to sell tobacco must be registered with the Scottish Government. The Act also brought in Tobacco Banning Orders for offences such as under age sales and there is a comprehensive test purchasing regime for tobacco. The majority of our members apply a Challenge 25 policy for tobacco even without it being mandatory.
There are bans on advertising and sponsorship and as we all know every store in Scotland that sells tobacco will have to go dark by 2015. As a result in the near future young people will simply not be exposed to packaging to any great degree.
It is not too late to halt any further move toward plain packaging and instead concentrate on policy that is genuinely relevant to need.