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Health groups: Let Parliament decide on standardised packaging

Members of the Smokefree Action Coalition, including the Royal College of Physicians, have written to prime minister David Cameron and secretary of state Jeremy Hunt expressing deep disappointment that legislation to introduce standardised packaging of tobacco products was not included in the Queen’s Speech.

Earlier today, Jeremy Hunt appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme saying that a decision had not been taken on standardised packaging. The Smokefree Action Coalition believes that the failure to bring forward legislation fatally undermines the government’s credibility on public health issues.

Major cause of preventable death and disease

Smoking remains the major cause of preventable death and disease, killing 100,000 people each year in the UK with over 200,000 children taking up smoking each year. It is an addiction primarily of children and young people with two thirds of smokers becoming addicted before the age of 18.

The public health minister, Anna Soubry MP, has publicly stated that she is ‘personally persuaded’ by the evidence of the need for standardised packaging. She went on to say that it was now time for the debate to be had with colleagues in Parliament. The Smokefree Action Coalition agrees with the public health minister.

Groundswell of public support

Since the launch of the public consultation on standard tobacco packaging in April 2012, there has been a groundswell of support for the measure with nearly two-thirds of the public and a majority of MPs across all political parties in favour.

In their joint letters to the prime minister and secretary of state for Health, members of the SFAC, including the RCP, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Faculty of Public Health, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the British Medical Association and the Trading Standards Institute, say that if the government will not go ahead with the introduction of standardised packaging then Parliament should be allowed to decide on the issue in a free vote in this parliamentary session. In order to facilitate the debate the Coalition also wants the government to publish the outcome of the consultation on this issue, a consultation which finished nearly 9 months ago, on 10 August 2012.

The president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson said:

This is a major lost opportunity to help protect children from starting to smoke. Evidence shows that plain packaging is less attractive to young people. In the UK, two-thirds of regular smokers started smoking before the age of 18; two-fifths before the age of 16. Only around half will manage to stop smoking during their lifetime. We need to take every opportunity to reduce the amount of deaths and disease in later life by preventing children from starting to smoke now.

Dr Janet Atherton, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health said:

Smoking is an addiction of childhood, with two-thirds of smokers starting before the age of 18. Tobacco packaging is clearly targeted at young people, and standardised packs would provide one less reason for them to start smoking. There has been an extensive public consultation on this issue – this should not be buried – the public has a right to expect that it should be properly debated in Parliament

Leon Livermore, chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute said:

The harm to public health from tobacco use is so great that every possible means of reducing this harm should be considered. Smoking remains one of the most significant challenges to public health. This laudable move towards plain packaging must not be derailed. The UK is the standard bearer for tobacco control in Europe and where we lead others will follow. This gives us added responsibility to proceed with plain packaging sooner rather than later.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity ASH said:

Every day nearly 570 young people start smoking, and many will go on to die early from smoking-related disease. Smoking is by far the biggest cause of preventable premature death, and the poorest communities suffer worst. It is clear that a majority of MPs and peers as well as the general public support standard packs. If the Government cannot find the courage to act, then Parliament must be given the chance to decide, as it did with smokefree legislation.