Last week, 50 MPs wrote an open letter to the Department of Health expressing their “serious concerns” with plans to enforce plain packaging on cigarettes. Only 34 of the MPs who signed the letter were Conservatives. This is a further sign of the decline in real conservative values held true by those elected under the Tory banner. It reaffirms the view that we cannot rely on the Conservative Party to stand by their own fundamental principles that Conservative voters expect such as freedom, individual responsibility and the abolition of Labour’s ‘nanny state’. The failure of vast numbers of Tory MPs to oppose the idea means that the fight against plain packaging continues to be led by groups such as FOREST and individuals outside parliament. This gives the general public just two weeks to show their antipathy towards the proposals in the consultation that was announced by Andrew Lansley last March, because few Tory MPs will fight against it for us.
As a non-smoker, and one who certainly does not want to see the rate of smoking increase, it is obvious that the idea that plain packaging of cigarettes will reduce smoking rates is frankly preposterous. So far there is little real evidence supporting the idea that plain packaging would make any real difference to smoking rates. The only country to have signed up to such a ban is Australia, and that won’t come into effect until the end of 2012. Supporters of the ban use poorly researched arguments that reduce human behaviour to little more than ‘monkey-see monkey-do’. It is simply ludicrous to suggest that people would spend money purely on a cardboard box to give the impression of a certain lifestyle choice and then feel compelled to smoke the contents.
If we accept that cigarette purchases are heavily based upon “cool” packaging, the implementation of plain packaging could actually make smoking cheaper. If people really do pay a premium for the coolest looking brand, without packaging to differentiate between them the only thing companies will be able to compete on is price. This will inevitably result in the lowering of prices. Cheaper cigarettes is surely an idea that anyone who advocates plain packaging would find abhorrent, more so than just branding on packets, so why encourage a result that common sense says is inevitable?
Furthermore, a uniform packet for all cigarettes makes life just that bit easier for counterfeiters. You say you want to stop children from smoking? Then don’t make life easier for those selling counterfeit cigarettes, because somehow it seems unlikely that they would subscribe to the ‘Think 25’ policy operated by legitimate retailers. The ability to just make one single cigarette packet will inevitably increase the availability of counterfeit cigarettes on the market and make it harder for some consumers to tell if what they are smoking is genuine or not. Do we really want to make it easier for criminals to get away with selling fake cigarettes containing such dangers as asbestos and rat poison to the public? Yes, smoking has health risks, but lets not make it worse by enabling fake cigarettes with such things as asbestos in them to proliferate the market.
Even if you completely support plain packaging, one has to wonder whether it should really be a government priority. We are in a time of severe economic hardship. The open letter to the DOH identifies that 5500 jobs could be put directly at risk by implementation of these proposals. Not something the government should be encouraging. In fact, shouldn’t the economy be the government’s priority during such difficult times: when people are struggling to get a job, pay the rent and afford the petrol they need to drive their children to school, suddenly the packaging on cigarette doesn’t look like quite such a priority.
Yet the most compelling reason to be against the proposals and one that should unite all smokers and non-smokers alike is the threat that such legislation poses to the freedom of the individual. It is ideologically unsound to make all cigarette packaging conform to the same image. It reduces our freedom. It treats us like zombies who are completely incapable of thinking our own thoughts and making our own choices. Are we really so childlike and incapable of thinking for ourselves that the state must act as a parent to us? The anti-smoking lobby claim that children are manipulated by the packaging of cigarettes, a ludicrous idea. Campaigners refer to it as a “child protection issue”. Well frankly it shouldn’t be. We are not all children and we already have legislation in place banning the sale of cigarettes to under-18s. Enforcing this should be the priority of anti-smoking campaigners, not vilifying smokers who smoke legally and choose to do so.
The Tory party should be leading by example with opposition to such proposals. Yes, conservatives may not agree with smoking themselves, but as a Conservative I respect everyone’s right to make their own choices. We should be advocating a smaller state that encourages personal responsibility. How can we claim that citizens need to show responsibility for themselves in areas such as not languishing on welfare, yet we absolutely insist on treating them like children over other matters? Where will this nanny state phenomenon end? We can be assured that once campaigners succeed in this arena, it will be junk food or alcohol next. What we should be doing is making sure that children are given good education that will enable them to make their own choices, and making access to cigarettes harder for those who are underage. We should not be preaching to adults who already smoke and will continue to do so regardless of what is on the front of their pack of cigarettes. This is not just highly unsound but also typifies the death of real conservatism amongst the mainstream Conservative Party.
Emily Burditt is a recent graduate of the University of Nottingham and outgoing Vice-President of Nottingham University Conservative Association. She Tweets at @ECBurditt