Focus on tobacco

And so after countless government inquiries and years of lobbying by campaigners on both sides of the argument, the government actually managed to surprise everyone last night by finally putting its money where its mouth is and pushed ahead with plans to bring in plain packaging for tobacco.

A free vote in the commons will now take place before the General Election in May and, should that pass, plain packs could be a reality as early as 2016.

Of course this timetable is likely to be impacted by strong legal challenges from the tobacco industry, who are not likely to let go of their branding without one hell of a fight that is likely to be protracted and expensive for all parties involved – several lawyers are probably flicking through the luxury yacht brochures right now.

However, similar challenges faced the Australian government when it introduced plain packs at the end of 2011. Indeed, many legal and international challenges around that move are still either ongoing or pending. There is, then, certainly precedent for the government to plough ahead and face the consequences later.

What was disappointing this morning was the quality of the debate around what is a very complex issue and important issue.

On radio and television debates members of the health lobby and those campaigning against the move (many of which - the various broadcasters were keen to point out - receive funding from tobacco companies) resorted to the usual exchanging of insults and mudslinging and accusations of ignoring the evidence.

The fact is that neither side of this debate can provide conclusive evidence to back up the arguments that either plain packs will have a genuine impact in terms of decreasing youth smoking rates (the whole reason set out by the government for the move in the first place) or will have no impact at all and only fuel the black market.

The problem is there is really no way to tell – particularly faced with all of the other anti-tobacco measures having been put into place by various governments over the last few years.

Most significant among these is the ban on display, which will be extended to small shops across the country from April. On an entirely personal note, I have to wonder why government would not wait to measure the success or failure of this policy which effectively does exactly the same thing as plain packs – that is, to take the shiny displays of cigarette packs out of the sight and minds of young people.