Row over cigarette packaging grows
A bitter row over Government moves to strip cigarette packets of branding was growing tonight.
Health campaigners welcomed plans for plain packaging on tobacco products in a bid to cut smoking, but opponents claimed the proposals would lead to increased smuggling and job losses.
As the Government prepared to launch a public consultation on Monday, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "Health ministers across the UK have a responsibility to look closely at initiatives that might encourage smokers to quit and stop young people from taking up smoking in the first place.
"Through the forthcoming consultation we want to hear as many views as possible about whether tobacco packing should remain unchanged, plain packaging should be adopted or a different option should be considered."
But Conservative MP Mark Field said plain packaging would "create a dangerous precedent for the future of commercial free speech".
Writing on the ConservativeHome website, he said: "Plain packaging will result in other sorts of negative impacts, including the increased health threat posed by counterfeit tobacco, the encouragement of smuggled products and damaging competition.
"Indeed, the Treasury is already losing around £3 billion a year from tobacco that has evaded UK duty; criminal gangs operating a contraband supply chain at the expense of legitimate businesses.
"All of this could result in a potential loss of investment and jobs that goes way beyond the tobacco manufacturing sector."
The Association of Convenience Stores, which represents Britain's corner shops, vowed to fight such moves.
Chief executive James Lowman said: "This would create further regulatory burdens on thousands of businesses.
"If every tobacco product looks the same it will be much harder for retailers and their staff to locate products on the shelf.
"This will slow down service times, affect customer service and make stock management harder."
Imperial Tobacco spokesman Alex Parsons described plain packaging as "a disproportionate step".
He told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "There is no credible evidence to substantiate what the Government is saying which is that people make the decision to smoke or continue smoking because of the colour of the packs of the cigarettes they buy.
"Quite frankly, it is a preposterous notion."
He said branding allowed tobacco companies to "differentiate their offerings from a competitor and consumers to make an informed choice".
Simon Clark, director of pro-smoking group the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco, said: "Plain packaging is yet another attack on retailers and adult consumers.
"People are sick of being nannied by government.
"Britain needs to be protected from excessive regulation, not controlled by more and more legislation."
But Deborah Arnott, chief executive of campaigning charity Action on Smoking and Health, welcomed the plan, saying: "Now cigarette advertising, promotion and sponsorship and tobacco displays have all been banned this is the obvious next step if the Government truly wants to make smoking history.
"Cigarettes are not like sweets or toys and should not be sold in fancy colourful packaging which makes them appealing to children."
The British Heart Foundation's policy director Betty McBride said: "Tobacco advertising is rightly banned in the UK, yet current glitzy packaging clearly still advertises tobacco on the cigarette box.
"It's an absurd loophole the tobacco industry takes full advantage of to lure in new young smokers."
Shadow health minister Diane Abbott also backed the plan, saying plain packaging was "less misleading and less attractive".
She added: "Part of the reason plain packaging is needed is to reduce the attractiveness of tobacco products to children."
A spokesman for HM Revenue and Customs, which collects duty on tobacco sold in the UK, said ministers would study the consultation before taking final decisions.
He added: "That includes assessing any potential impacts on the illicit market in the UK.
"The global growth of counterfeit products has led to more illicit tobacco penetrating the legitimate retail sector.
"In the UK, measures have been introduced to deter retailers from selling counterfeits, including anti-counterfeit technology, substantial financial penalties, possible prosecution and a ban from selling tobacco products for up to six months."
The Institute of Economic Affairs' director general Mark Littlewood labelled the plan "a patronising and unnecessary distraction".
He said: "A more nannying and ill-judged intrusion into our lives is hard to imagine."
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