Never mind government U-turns, the decision on plain packaging for cigarettes is the right one

Evidence from Australia indicates that uniform packs leave addicts likelier to consider kicking the habit

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The Independent Online

Five months after the Government decided – to the frustration of health experts – to shelve the plan to force cigarette companies to forgo hi-tech modern packaging in favour of a deliberately consumer-unfriendly alternative, it seems that David Cameron has changed his mind.

When the policy was dropped, in July, it was simply politics. Together with the coalition plan to introduce a minimum per-unit price for alcohol (also, sadly, abandoned), drably standardised cigarette packaging had too strong a whiff of the nanny state for a Prime Minister concerned at the mood in his electoral heartlands. Lynton Crosby, the famously robust strategist brought in to give the flagging Tories some pep, was encouraging Mr Cameron to “remove the barnacles from the boat”, and what was once a sensible public health measure became state interference – and was duly dumped.

The move immediately fell foul of doctors and health campaigners, who have fought consistently to have it reinstated. But Mr Cameron’s political opponents also made hay, claiming the decision as evidence of the Prime Minister’s closeness to Big Tobacco. That Mr Crosby’s firm – Crosby Textor – had been engaged to help Philip Morris lobby against the proposal only added to the febrile atmosphere.

Now, however, the matter has a different complexion. Once again, it is politics that is forcing the Prime Minister’s hand – this time in the shape of a looming defeat in the House of Lords, where a cross-party group has tabled an addition to the Children and Families Bill that is all set to be passed. Rather than wait to be worsted in Parliament, the Government announced yesterday a review of the pilot scheme that began in Australia in 2011, to be completed by the end of March. If it is found to be effective, new rules could be in place before 2015.

The Government’s change of heart is couched in the language of equivocation. Just as the policy was never explicitly withdrawn, so its resurrection is simply that it is now the right time “to examine the emerging evidence” on its effectiveness. A U-turn is a U-turn, though, however obfuscatory its presentation. Coming as it does in a week in which the Government reversed its position on payday lenders and committed to introducing a cap on loan costs, Mr Cameron can expect another round of flak about weakness from his opponents and commendations of flexibility from his supporters.

When it comes to cigarette packaging, the decision – notwithstanding its tortuous route – is the right one. Those who would argue the contrary talk of rights infringed and smugglers encouraged. Hardly. Any who wish to smoke may still do so; plain packaging simply lessens the marketing appeal, particularly to the impressionable young. Indeed, claims that changing the packaging interferes with smokers’ enjoyment merely make the argument stronger. Early evidence from Australia indicates that uniform, brown packs leave addicts much more likely to consider kicking the habit.

The Independent is all for freedom of choice. But one must know what one is choosing. With cigarettes, dreary boxes and explicit health warnings make that clear. It is a shame about the Prime Minister’s prevarications. But at least he got it right in the end.