If you manufacture a product which steadily kills off the people who use it, you have to keep finding new customers. That's the unusual, if not unique, problem facing the big tobacco companies. Picture a queue for cigarettes in your local supermarket and the fact is that half the people in it will gradually disappear, struck down by cancer, heart disease, pneumonia or emphysema. Around 100,000 people die from smoking-related diseases each year in the UK.
With such a high attrition rate, it's no surprise that the tobacco companies kick and scream whenever someone suggests measures to discourage smoking. They did it in Australia when the government proposed legislation to enforce plain packaging; they lost that battle, but they're doing better in the UK where the Government has announced a delay in introducing similar proposals.
The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said in a written statement yesterday that he wants to see the impact in Australia before going ahead in this country, but the delay makes no sense at all. Plain packaging is actually a misnomer – it involves brand names in plain type, overshadowed by huge health warnings – and photographs of gangrenous limbs are hardly likely to encourage anyone to take up the habit. So the Government had nothing to lose by making the change, and potentially a lot to gain in terms of improving public health.
To anyone who's witnessed the dire effects of smoking on a friend or relative, the decision is indefensible. I remember vividly how the final 18 months of my father's life were blighted by lung cancer; he died at the age of 63, too young to enjoy the retirement he'd saved for throughout his working life. He got hooked in his teens, and it's obvious that getting people young is the most effective way of creating lifelong addicts.
Critics of the Government's decision suspect another Australian connection in the shape of the Tories' election campaign manager, Lynton Crosby. His company, Crosby Textor, does not reveal its clients but is said to have long-standing links with the tobacco industry in Australia, where the three biggest companies spent $5m on their campaign against plain packaging.
The Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston demanded "clarity" on Crosby's role in this and another controversial announcement, shelving a minimum price for alcohol; Labour's Diane Abbott asked why the Tories were backing down on a proposal they supported before David Cameron gave a job to Crosby. Cameron insists Crosby hasn't lobbied him but refuses to say whether they've discussed plain packaging.
One thing is clear. Few modern industries kill as many of their customers as the tobacco companies. They've managed to persuade more than a quarter of people in their twenties to take up the habit, despite all the evidence of damage to health. Ministers should hang their heads in shame for not doing everything possible to encourage them to give up – and for failing to protect the next generation from this pointless, health-destroying habit.