James Cant: Time for plain talk on cigarettes

Packets of cigarettes. Picture: Getty
Packets of cigarettes. Picture: Getty
Have your say

Scotland’s stance on box designs will help stop tobacco firms snaring new, young smokers, says James Cant

WE all know that smoking is bad for your health. It is the single biggest cause of premature mortality in the UK, killing around 13,000 people a year in Scotland alone. UK-wide, the annual death toll rises to over 100,000. That’s over twice the population of a city like Perth or Inverness dying of a smoking-related illness every year.

It is because of these health risks that the UK government banned tobacco advertising over a decade ago. But ever since, the tobacco industry has been getting round the ban by investing heavily in cleverly-designed packaging to market cigarettes directly at young people, recruiting new young smokers to replace the older ones (50 per cent of whom die as a result of their habit). We know this is the case: leaked documents from the tobacco industry have told us so.

And it’s working. Every year, over 200,000 young people across the UK start smoking. In Scotland alone, 40 young people start smoking every day. As tobacco companies know all too well, young people are the group to targets: around two thirds of smokers started before the age of 18, with many struggling to quit later in life.

Research by the British Heart Foundation found that over two thirds of 16 to 25-year-olds themselves consider cigarette packaging a form of advertising – confirmation straight from the target audience.

Cigarette packaging has also helped perpetuate the myth that certain brands of cigarette are somehow healthier than others. Many smokers still ask for brands described as “light” or “mild”, even though those words have long been banned from cigarette packets for being misleading.

Retaining the same packet designs once used for these now illegal brands has helped maintain erroneous belief that there is such a thing as a “mild” cigarette.

Selling cigarettes in plain, standardised packets, removed of their attractive casing, would strip tobacco companies of their ability to attract and mislead young people in these ways and help cut the number taking up smoking and dying as a result.

Of course, the tobacco industry has issued scare stories about the dangers of plain packaging They’ve claimed it will lead to increased counterfeiting and smuggling – although they’ve yet to produce any evidence. They’ve claimed the recent ban on cigarette displays in shops makes plain packaging unnecessary, ignoring the fact their packets are still clearly recognisable elsewhere. They’ve even used the old classic about plain packaging being an example of the “nanny state”, even though this law is clearly about helping the next generation, and would in no way affect current smokers’ options and choices.

The evidence in support of plain packaging is overwhelming, which makes it all the more frustrating that the UK government has decided against it, preferring to postpone a decision until they can see the impact the same law has in Australia. I’m not looking forward to the future research that will eventually reveal how many lives this decision may have cost.

Fortunately, the Scottish Government has reaffirmed its commitment to making Scotland the first country in the UK to make plain packaging compulsory. For the health of our friends throughout the rest of the UK, I can only hope that it is not too long until they again follow our example. Cigarette packaging is designed to make a deadly product attractive to young people. The time has surely come to finally break that link.

• James Cant is head of the British Lung Foundation, Scotland