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Donald Macintyre's Sketch: And now a word from our sponsors – spin included


Since the advertising ban, the tobacco industry has had to rely on product placement in unexpected contexts, like the House of Commons. “I confess that I enjoyed a Henri Wintermans Café Crème after breakfast this morning on the way to work,” Tory MP Robert Halfon announced, arguing that plain packaging might make it “easier to smuggle counterfeit cigarettes”.

This approach has possibilities. To save taxpayers’ money, parliamentary proceedings could actually be sponsored, like the old US radio shows lovingly parodied in Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. “Every little helps,” the minister would announce during a speech on, say, the horsemeat scandal. “This debate is brought to you by the country’s leading supermarket chain. If you can’t find it at Tesco, you can probably get along without it.”

On Thursday, public health minister Jane Ellison had a less than easy ride announcing what the polls suggest will be a popular government change of heart: reviving the prospect of mandatory plain packaging for cigarettes before the next general election. She should “stand up to the health zealots and nanny state brigade who, if they could, would ban everything and have everything in plain packaging”, said ultra-free marketeer Philip Davies.

True to his bovver boy image, Davies thought this was such a good point it was worth making at least twice. When Lib Dem John Pugh asked: “What exactly is the downside of plain packaging, apart from fewer fags being sold?” he growled: “A left-wing, nanny state wallah like you would not understand.”

Davies’ fellow libertarian David Nuttall feared the Government would similarly decide that “selling children sweets in brightly coloured packets contributes to childhood obesity”, as if this were such a depraved idea that no one could possibly agree with it. But John Baron, who chairs an all-party group on cancer, declared: “The Government have listened and responded … a sign of strength, not weakness.”

Labour’s public health spokeswoman Luciana Berger accused David Cameron of listening more to his election guru Lynton Crosby and “the vested interests of big tobacco than cancer charities and health experts”. This last point seemed a bit perverse when ministers appear to have forsaken Crosby’s advice. Labour outrage might also have reflected the realisation that an electoral fox was being ruthlessly shot.