Brave new Tobacco Plan for England

17 Mar 2011

There will be a delay – extending the gap between implementation in large and small shops – of six months and 18 months respectively, so that the legislation now comes into effect in April 2013 in large and April 2015 in small retail outlets. However, this was a major victory for public health given that as recently as a few days before the decision was announced the Prime Minister had confirmed his commitment to roll back regulation.

Plain packaging

The Plan also included a commitment to consult on plain packaging, putting the UK on track to be the first country in Europe to implement such a measure. The tobacco industry continues to lobby against the display legislation and is expected to ramp up its lobbying against plain packaging, as happened in Australia.

The Government says it takes very seriously its obligations under Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and that “the tobacco industry has not been involved in the development of this Tobacco Control Plan”. However, the retail trade bodies have been consulted and have been very influential. They are also part of the tobacco industry, and receive funding from the manufacturers. The Tobacco Plan commits to publishing details of all policy-related meetings between the tobacco industry and government departments, but how well this will work in practice remains to be seen. There is also a commitment to working with civil society to guide implementation.  

The Government has committed to reduce smoking prevalence in adults by 0.5 percentage points per annum for the next five years, from 21 per cent to 18.5 per cent by the end of 2015 (this is any smoking not just daily smoking). There are also aims to reduce smoking amongst 15-year-olds from 15 per cent in 2009 to 12 per cent or less by 2015; and to reduce smoking in pregnancy from 14 per cent in 2009/10 to 11 per cent by 2015.

Affordability not addressed

Achieving these targets will require not just more controls on marketing of tobacco but also a significant reduction in the affordability of tobacco products, which the Plan says little about as it is the responsibility of the finance ministry. The UK has some of the highest tobacco taxes in the world, but tobacco remains significantly more affordable than it was 40 years ago.

Currently the Government has in place a tax escalator of 2 per cent above inflation from 2011 to 2104. ASH and the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, endorsed by 68 health and welfare organisations, have campaigned for this to be increased to 5 per cent above inflation. Whether the Government has been persuaded by this campaign will be revealed in the budget announcement on 23 March.

Reducing affordability also requires cracking down on the sale of cheap and illicit tobacco. Following a tough Government anti-smuggling campaign the market share of illicit cigarettes has halved in the UK over the last decade but remains high at 11 per cent. The market share for illicit hand-rolled tobacco is even higher at nearly 50 per cent, although it has begun to decline in recent years.

New anti-smuggling strategy

More clearly needs to be done. In the comprehensive spending review last autumn the Government committed new funds to tackling smuggling and a refreshed anti-smuggling strategy is expected in the weeks following the budget.

Last but not least, we need to see a revival of the mass media campaigns which drive population level quitting and guide smokers to support to quit. These were cancelled before the election last spring and although a commitment is made in the Plan to a new marketing strategy, to be published shortly, there is no indication yet of what the funding will be.

In conclusion, there is a lot to welcome in the strategy, but it is only the first step. Given that smoking rates have stayed static in England since 2007, for both adults and children, the ambitions are stretching. Whether the aspirations in the Plan can be realised will depend on the follow through.

This opinion article is by Deborah Arnott – Chief Executive, Action on Smoking and Health, UK.

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