Mark Leftly: Why the big cover-up just won't work when it comes to choking off smokers

  • @MLeftly

Outlook I always wanted to smoke but couldn't inhale. At least, not without nearly coughing up my guts. Those teenage attempts to impress girls and peers alike ended up with me spluttering and them laughing. But there was no doubt that if I could master the art of puffing a ciggie, then I would at the very least look like an appealingly dishevelled private eye from film noir.

Maybe, just maybe, I could pull off the Sean Connery look from the baccarat scene in Dr No, a cigarette suavely dangling from his mouth as he eyed up Bond girl Sylvia Trench. Years later, as a journalist, I wondered whether I could pull off David Strathairn's sharp look in Good Night, and Good Luck, when he played the heavy-smoking news broadcaster Edward R. Morrow.

Yes, it's fair to say the image of smoking has long been a major factor in why people light up. However, I was not alone as a child in the 80s who would hide his mum's fags to try and stop a 20-a-day habit. Society's youngest were barraged with information as to just what awful illnesses cigarettes can cause and that has only intensified.

Much like Super Size Me's findings that eating fast food three times a day was bad for you, putting plain packaging over cancer stick brands is not telling us anything new about smoking. Yet reports suggest that the Government seems intent on pressing ahead with legislation that would replace colourful branded packets with a dull, generic cover.

This is not a defence of the tobacco industry – the likes of British American Tobacco and Imperial will find ways of maintaining their multi-billion revenues. Big tobacco's central argument is that this will make cigarettes easier to fake, and therefore grow the illegal smuggling trade that funds criminal gangs.

Cancer Research UK – which is, admittedly, a tiny bit biased – hasn't found any evidence to back up this argument. And the charity is right to point out that the illicit UK cigarette market was reduced from 21 per cent in 2000-01 to 9 per cent in 2010-11 as the Border Agency and HMRC tightened up their controls.

Those controls aren't going to be relaxed, not with a government so determined to crack down on an industry that causes more than 100,000 deaths a year and costs the UK nearly £14bn, according to another slightly conflicted group, Action on Smoking and Health. This is net of the £11.3bn that the Exchequer gains in punitive tax on fags, though surprisingly only £2.7bn is the cost to the NHS. Other costs include £507m a year of smoking-related fire damage in homes and £342m for cleaning up cigarette butts.

The tobacco industry's argument isn't, then, persuasive and the Government obviously has noble intentions with its crackdown on smoking. However, if an answer to a question is wrong then it is not enough to simply say "well, at least we've given an answer".

Despite a general decline, one in five people still smoke and making the packets a duller colour won't stop an addiction. Anyway, businesses are already selling cigarette case covers for the European market, with sharp designs featuring everything from flowers to, a more appropriate but nevertheless pretty funky, skull and crossbones.

In Australia, where plain packaging has already been introduced, such sleeves are used to cover up the generic packaging. These cover the only images accompanying the green packet: a child struggling to breathe because of passive smoking or a warning that fags can cause blindness.

The market seems to believe that generic packaging will hurt sales, hence Imperial and BAT investors sold off shares when the news broke yesterday morning. However, it's difficult to see how packaging does anything more than make cigarettes seem that little bit more alluring to the very youngsters that this law is surely meant to protect. Also, the reasoning behind other legislation was far better targeted: the smoking ban was put in place to stop passive smoking. That law was to ensure that smokers couldn't inflict illness on people who hadn't made the choice to buy fags, but were forced to breathe the fumes.

By contrast, this legislation has a touch of the 1984 about it, though the Orwellian Big Brother argument is probably overstated by internet warriors – notably those who have compared the legislation to a certain German political party that rose to prominence in the 1930s. And investors in big tobacco needn't worry that sales will be hit: this legislation either won't work, as the few put off smoking will be surely be offset by those who then find it even more attractive.

Better education has already worked over the years, though the rate of decline in smokers is admittedly frustratingly slow for campaigners. Always improving this message will work – though failure to overcome a gag reflex to inhaling smoke is the only sure prevention.