- 12 июля 2013, 21:46
Scientists and campaigners say lives will be lost and accuse ministers of bowing to tobacco industry lobbying
Lives will be lost as a result of the government's decision to kick the notion of plain packaging for cigarettes into the long grass, say scientists and campaigners who accuse ministers of bowing to tobacco industry lobbying.
In a written statement to the Commons, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said a decision on whether to enforce plain packaging would be postponed, provoking fury among health groups and doctors, including the Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, a GP in Totnes, who tweeted: "RIP public health. A day of shame for this government; the only winners big tobacco, big alcohol and big undertakers."
The government is also expected to back down next week on David Cameron's promise to support a minimum unit price for alcohol.
Hunt said the government should wait for evidence of the effectiveness of plain packs in deterring young people in Australia, where the policy has already been implemented. But health professionals and campaigners say no further proof is needed, citing a systematic review of studies from Stirling University that was prepared for the government's own consultation. "There is no need for further delay," said the Smokefree Action Coalition, an alliance of 150 public heath bodies. It called the postponement a "tame surrender" to the tobacco industry.
More than 200,000 young people under 16 start smoking every year. With advertising banned, cigarette packets are the only vehicle that companies are able to use to recruit children to the habit. The review said unadorned packs were less attractive to young people, improved the effectiveness of health warnings and reduced the numbers who mistakenly believed that some brands were safer than others.
"We are extremely disappointed that the government has backed down from taking this essential step to protect children's health," said Dr Hilary Cass, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, a member of the Smokefree Action Coalition. "Children and teenagers are most impressionable to branding, and the attractive packaging used by the tobacco industry is no exception. It's therefore not surprising that two thirds of today's smoking population confirm they took up the habit at a young age.
"Standardised packaging is urgently needed to cut smoking uptake and prevent smoking-related deaths."
Dr Hilary Emery, chief executive of the National Children's Bureau, said it was "a sad day for child protection and child health. We believe that parliament should have the chance to vote on the issue as soon as possible."
Cancer Research UK reacted most strongly of all. "This decision is bitterly disappointing and lives will be lost as a result," said chief executive Harpal Kumar. Children, he said, "are lured into an addiction that is often lifelong but which kills half of all long-term users. We can't stand by and watch as these lives are lost.
"The government has stalled in the face of strong evidence and instead... reacted to myths perpetuated by the tobacco industry, an industry well known for suppressing the truth about its lethal products."
Downing Street is understood to be behind the decision to shelve plain packaging, which has been clearly heading for the Whitehall long grass ever since a bill on the topic was dropped from the Queen's speech in May. During the consultation there were claims that plain packaging legislation could cost jobs in manufacturing and in retail, encourage illegal tobacco trading and cost the Exchequer up to £6bn, although on Friday the Department of Health would not say which of these arguments had proved persuasive.
Wollaston expanded on her own views on BBC Radio 4, partly blaming the decision on Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives' general election co-ordinator credited with telling Cameron to "scrape the barnacles off the boat" – meaning that he should focus on core issues such as immigration and not waste political capital on more marginal concerns.
"One of those barnacles is today being buried at sea and that seems to be public health. I think that's very worrying," Wollaston said.
Labour has also tried to pin some blame on Crosby, focusing on his lobbying company, Crosby Textor, and the work it has done for the tobacco industry.
"The Tories used to say that they were in favour of this policy, that children should be protected. But now, not long after employing Lynton Crosby, David Cameron is backing down," said shadow public health minister Diane Abbott, who tabled an urgent question on the subject in the Commons. "People will rightly wonder if the government is breaking its promise, despite the medical evidence and the wishes of British families, in order to please its friends in big business."