Cigarette packs: a smokescreen for selling death or a deterrent to crime?

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The Government U-turn on the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco products has been welcomed by manufacturers and condemned by health campaigners. Here, Grant Woodward and Will O’Reilly present the two sides of the debate.

GRANT WOODWARD

WATCHING a relative wheeze their way through their final days, hooked up to an oxygen tank that sits incongruously in their neat front room, cannot fail to have an effect on you.

In my case, it convinced me that I had been right to ditch the smoking habit picked up during my years at university. Seeing someone caught in the grip of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease will do that.

COPD is an insidious, pitiless condition, one invariably caused by years of heavy smoking. It’s a disease, essentially, that strangles the life out of you. Day by day, breath by breath.

Given this experience, you could say I have a vested interest in the debate over the introduction of plain cigarette packaging.

Already adopted in Australia – where black packets carry the brand name in a standardised font below images of health implications ranging from lung and tongue cancer to blindness and gangrene – its aim is to derail the tobacco manufacturers’ never-ending search for new addicts.

The fundamental case for standardised packaging is a very simple one. Cigarettes are the only products sold legally in the UK that kill their consumers when used exactly as the manufacturer intends.

And now that they have been banned from advertising on television, billboards or in printed publications, the only weapon the tobacco firms have left at their disposal are the packets their products come in.

As such, they have become increasingly inventive. To open a pack of Benson & Hedges “Silver Slide” cigarettes, for instance, you have to press the side opening. This then exposes a tray containing the cigarettes, printed on which is a quote from English philosopher GK Chesterton: “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very Best advice & then going away and doing tHe exact opposite.”

Subtle and sophisticated, it’s a design that not only bends existing rules on packaging, but also reinforces the age-old marketing message that smoking is cool, an act of rebellion that is both adult and trangressive.

It’s a ploy that works particularly well with the young and impressionable – the very market that the industry giants need to keep mining in the face of falling sales. The biggest of them all, Philip Morris International, saw its profits plummet by over eight per cent in the second quarter of this year, reflecting a sales decline across all its major regions.

It is hardly surprising that these companies are desperate to resist any further attempts to erode the allure of their products. Here, for the time being at least, they have succeeded.

Despite many politicians, including the public health minister Anna Soubry, backing plain packaging, the Government has announced its introduction is to be postponed until ministers have a chance to assess the impact of the Australian scheme.

This in spite of new research from Australia which has found that tobacco sold in standardised packaging is proving less appealing to smokers and makes them prioritise quitting.

It is little wonder then that David Cameron faced some awkward questions when this U-turn was announced – not least given the fact that Lynton Crosby, the election strategist brought in to secure a Tory majority in 2015, has such strong links with the tobacco industry.

It is claimed that last November, after his appointment as David Cameron’s adviser, Crosby personally signed a £6m contract between Philip Morris International and his firm Crosby Textor for lobbying work in the UK, including on standardised packaging of tobacco.

Both the Prime Minister and Crosby have since issued firm denials of any impropriety, the latter insisting they have never even spoken about the issue of plain packaging. Nevertheless, it doesn’t look good.

There are any number of arguments against standardised packaging that are put forward by the tobacco giants – and these are no less imaginative than their packet designs. Civil liberties, intellectual property rights, tobacco smuggling, free trade 
and unemployment, all have been plucked from the air to explain why this would be a 
step too far.

Ultimately, however, it’s all part of an increasingly desperate bid to keep selling products that kill people while making them an awful lot of money. It’s smoke and mirrors writ large.

One in every five deaths is directly attributable to smoking, while dealing with the diseases it causes costs the NHS more than £5bn a year. More pertinent still, every day 570 children in the UK become smokers. And many of them are destined to end up like that relative of mine, gasping their way through their last days at the end of an oxygen tank.

If David Cameron had seen that, perhaps he would realise that time is of the essence when it comes to stripping the last vestiges of glamour from smoking. Once and for all.

WILL O’REILLY

IT has always been the case that criminals favour crimes that carry the least risk for the maximum profit. Just as armed robberies of the 1970s and 80s made way for the drugs trade and large scale fraud in the 1990s, so a new crime of choice has emerged, which carries even less risk and even greater profits.

The smuggling and trade in illicit tobacco, untìl now thought to be a low level crime, has become the primary source of revenue for some criminal gangs and terrorist groups. It has already reached epidemic proportions in some parts of the UK and poorly conceived tobacco control regulation, such as plain packaging, would make the situation a whole lot worse.

Since November 2011, I have been conducting research on behalf of Philip Morris International in order to gain intelligence and understanding of the illicit trade in cigarettes across the United Kingdom.

Every year the main tobacco manufacturers commission a joint survey, where empty discarded packs are collected from public, streets and easy access bins across the main cities in the UK.

It makes for depressing reading, revealing that despite significant resources given to HMRC, and previous success, the level of smuggled and counterfeit tobacco is on the rise again.

Yorkshire and Humberside recorded 25 per cent, up on previous surveys and a clear indication that illicit tobacco products are now widely available in all local towns and cities.

Black market cigarettes fall into three categories: those that are smuggled from abroad; counterfeit cigarettes, which are made to look like the real thing; and illicit whites that are produced illegally for the sole purpose of smuggling and called strange names like Jin Ling, often without any health warnings.

I have been carrying out my field research alongside trained ex-police officers and have found that cigarettes can be purchased for as little as £2.50 against a legitimate retail price nudging £8 and are widely available from unscrupulous retailers, traders at car-boot sales, dealers in the street and in pubs, and from suppliers operating out of “fag houses”.

We were even offered illicit cigarettes by the single stick, clearly aimed at children and their pocket money. As one Trading Standards officer told me, the situation in his area was “chronic”.

One explanation for the rise of this crime is that profit margins are so high. Counterfeiters in China can manufacture a pack of cigarettes for less than 20p. A shipping container fully loaded with 10 million cigarettes can convert into £1.5m profit to the criminal group. The cost in lost revenue to the Treasury and indirectly to you, me and every other taxpayer is huge. HMRC estimated that nine per cent of all cigarettes smoked in the UK in 2010/11 evaded duty, as well as 38 per cent of all hand rolling tobacco. This equates to a loss of over almost £2bn to the Treasury. These are midpoint estimates and the situation could be even worse.

In 2011/12 the UK Border Force seized 455 million cigarettes and 142 million were seized inland by customs, a large amount but alas only a tiny proportion of the illicit product that reaches our shores.

lt is little wonder that organised criminal groups are turning their backs on riskier enterprises such as smuggling hard drugs in favour of one where profits are large, the risks of getting caught are small and the penalties, if they are caught, not substantial.

As a non-smoker and a responsible parent, I think we are much better off today for the tighter regulation of tobacco. But it is also perfectly clear to anyone who has dealt with counterfeiting and the black market that the idea of putting cigarettes in plain packets would be a boon for organised crime, which so often targets the kids that this regulation hopes to protect.

Analysis of seized counterfeit cigarettes have shown them to contain rat droppings, asbestos, mould, saw dust, high levels of lead and human excrement.

In a survey of serving police officers, 86 per cent thought that standardised packaging would make it easier to produce and sell counterfeit cigarettes.

It does not take a genius to conclude that counterfeiting will be easier when there is one pack design instead of over 260. Removing security measures such as trademarks and logos would just make it easier, allowing cigarettes to be filled with unregulated products.

Wider budget cuts mean that the odds are increasingly stacked against law enforcement agencies, so it would be madness to introduce a measure that inadvertently enriches the very criminal gangs that we are committed to tackling.

It is why last week’s decision by the Government to delay implementation of plain packaging for tobacco products until the emerging impact of the decision in Australia is better understood should be welcomed by all who are concerned about counterfeit cigarettes.