Tobacco companies are bracing themselves as the British government considers introducing plain packaging on cigarettes.
Reporter: Philip Williams
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: International tobacco companies’ worst fears have been realised with the British government announcing that it’s considering introducing plain packaging for cigarettes.
The Cameron government has flagged its intention to introduce plain packaging.
The move echoes similar groundbreaking steps announced for Australia earlier this year.
Europe correspondent Philip Williams reports.
SONG: I’m down to my last cigarette.
PHILIP WILLIAMS, REPORTER: In Britain the idea is still just that, but the fact the government is looking at following Australia’s lead on packaging has cigarette companies crying foul.
BEDE FENNELL, BRITISH AMERICAN TOBACCO: We sell a legal product and we have a brand – that is, we have intellectual property rights too – and there is a precedent there and regardless of what the product is, this is in breach of international trade obligations, of intellectual property obligations and there’s a real dangerous precedent to be set here.
PHILIP WILLIAMS: But the bottom line is, isn’t it – let’s get down to it – it’s protecting profits. You’re a company, you’re there to make profits and you obviously have calculated that you will earn less with plain packaging.
BEDE FENNELL: Look, we will take every step necessary to protect our valuable brands, our intellectual property and to ensure that we can continue to sell a legal product in a legitimate market.
PHILIP WILLIAMS: According to British American Tobacco, plain packaging for cigarettes is just the beginning.
BEDE FENNELL: It’s the thin end of the wedge. If they’re prepared to do this to cigarettes today, are they prepared to do it to food or beer tomorrow?
ROBIN HEWINGS, CANCER RESEARCH TOBACCO CONTROL TEAM: There’s nothing like smoking in terms of the health damages that it causes. It kills half of its long-term users in the UK. Over 100,000 people die from smoking every year. You couldn’t say the same thing about any other type of product.
Robin Hewings from the tobacco control team at UK Cancer Research has been advising the government on the best way to reduce smoking, especially the take up amongst young people.
He’s convinced removing brands will decrease the appeal.
ROBIN HEWINGS: Well I know from my own experience that we always like to think that we make completely independent decisions. But I know from my own experience when I smoked as a teenager that the branding on cigarette packages was part of what made it attractive.
And we also know from studies that we’ve done with smokers who have been given plain packs for a number of weeks that it has changed how they think about smoking and the ways in which they smoke as well.
PHILIP WILLIAMS: While cigarette companies argue there is no evidence to support plain packaging, they also say it will increase the risk of counterfeit products which they argue already account for 20 per cent of sales.
BEDE FENNELL: Illegal tobacco is a growing problem for the UK Government – and governments around the world – and if you make the product commoditised, make it plain, make it cheaper, then it’s going to be a windfall for counterfeiters, for smugglers and for criminal syndicates.
PHILIP WILLIAMS: But counterfeiters, smugglers, they’re doing pretty good business now using your brands.
Really, is that a significant change?
BEDE FENNELL: Well if you make the pack a plain pack then it will be easier to counterfeit.
ROBIN HEWINGS: The tobacco industry claims that most things will increase smuggling. But what you can really tell from how strongly the tobacco industry have reacted to that is that they probably think that this is going to be very effective in reducing their markets. And that’s why they’re so opposed.
PHILIP WILLIAMS: The real test rests with smokers.
In our tiny and unscientific survey, it seems plain or branded, it’s the drag not the dressing that counts.
VOX POP 1: It wouldn’t affect it in any way, I don’t feel. People are going to smoke. They’re addicted to it, they’ll smoke. I don’t know, brands are different, I understand that but I can’t see any difference.
VOX POP 2: It might stop young people smoking but it’s all going to be about peer pressure. So it might do a little bit to help it but I don’t think it’ll go away completely.
VOX POP 3: If anyone wants to smoke they are going to smoke anyway. So if it’s not the reason why you smoke, why you don’t.
PHILIP WILLIAMS: While the plain realities may be debated, it’s clear Australia’s lead is being watched very carefully by both sides.
ROBIN HEWINGS: We know that the British government says in the parliament (inaudible) only this week they’re looking very closely at the Australian experience. And we think it’s going to have a tremendous affect on the UK government and others around the world.
PHILIP WILLIAMS: Tobacco companies fear that political precedence even one country could establish – and Britain could be next.
By Philip Williams