Sarah Morrison: Smoke, mirrors and a lot of spin

We know tobacco control could save £1.7bn a year in treatment for smoking-related diseases

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The first time I begged an older friend to buy me cigarettes, I was clear what type I wanted: Benson and Hedges Gold, of course. It didn't matter that I coughed my way through one of the strongest types of tobacco available, I had the Liam and Noel Gallagher seal of approval: my What's The Story Morning Glory singles edition was designed to look like the front of the tobacco company's shining packet. There was even its very own warning branded in the same italics on the cover: "Rock N' Roll can seriously damage your health." I was sold.

Plain packaging on cigarettes helps deter new people from smoking. The World Health Organisation says it does and Australia will become the first country in the world to enforce it in 2012. You might have been surprised when the Coalition said it too would confront the tobacco industry and "consider" forcing companies to swap their branded cigarette packs for grey or brown ones. But don't hold your breath for too long, because they won't.

David Cameron, the PR-maverick- turned-PM, has taken legislation designed to protect your child's health and spun it until it no longer makes sense. His Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, says he is "looking at the idea" of plain cigarette packets, while he backtracks on the last government's call for a ban on tobacco displays in shops, the best way to prevent young people from lighting their first cigarette.

The Coalition is dressing up in progressive's clothing. But behind the wrapping it's clear that this is the same PR operation that put McDonald's, Diageo and PepsiCo on "responsibility deal" networks to advise the government on how to tackle obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease.

Lansley has always held research dear. When asked about tobacco, he repeated his mantra that "evidence" shows attractive packaging helps to lure new smokers. Which it does. But when asked about Labour's proposed ban on shop displays and vending machines, the Coalition seems to suddenly forget the facts. Whitehall needs to "ensure an appropriate balance between public health and burdens on businesses," Anne Milton, the public health minister, told the Commons. In other words, realistic policies meant to come into effect next year will be delayed. And a proposal that would take five years to pass is going to lead the media parade.

Packaging still acts as the silent salesman for the 200,000 children who start smoking in the UK each year. But if you think the Coalition is going to make the industry behind the country's most easily prevented cause of premature death cover up any time soon, I predict you will be disappointed when Lansley's White Paper on public health is published tomorrow.

The Government knows it must do two things to reach the fifth of all adults in England who smoke: keep the price high through taxation and use media campaigns to advise those hooked how to quit. The Coalition has promised to increase tax duty on tobacco by just a token 1 per cent this year. This was not a hard decision – smoking disproportionately affects the poorest in our society and an increase in tax will hit them the worst. Yet while Labour invested £10m on an information campaign, including TV ads showing smokers being dragged to shops by fishhooks piercing their cheeks, the Coalition has made no such commitment. This is despite the indisputable correlation between such ads and visits to the NHS's Stop Smoking Services, which increase a smoker's chances of quitting fourfold.

We know tobacco control could save £1.7bn a year in treatment for smoking-related diseases. Cameron should look beyond the glitzy packaging and, for once, pay attention to the small print on the side. But I wouldn't be surprised if he decided to stay where he was: hiding behind a headline.

s.r.morrison456@gmail.com

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