Recently there has been an interesting debate on the pages of the Financial Times about proposals to force tobacco companies to use standardised packaging. It was sparked by an interview with Alison Cooper, the chief executive of Imperial Tobacco, who said the proposed measures were anti-business.
The FT’s business and society columnist Michael Skapinker responded the next week with a column that dismissed her suggestions that the government was going too far in destroying brands. He said that of “all legal businesses, smoking stands alone in its harmfulness.”
He argued that the government had a right to regulate the market but he failed to note that Ms Cooper did not dispute this right. The tobacco industry understands that its products are harmful.
Mr Skapinker moved on to say the only arguable point in favour of the cigarette business is that it allows individuals choice “and even that is largely bogus”. As a columnist, he is entitled to his views. But he is misrepresenting Ms Cooper’s argument. She is not saying that tobacco regulation should be removed. She is saying the new proposals are disproportionate and will destroy brand value. She is also saying that if regulators use them against tobacco then they will use them against other industries. And if they use them on flimsy evidence, then they may do that in other areas of public health interest.
The state has a right to regulate, Mr Skapinker argued. Again the tobacco industry would agree. It can regulate brands out of existence. But what then? It is important to remember that brands are very useful for consumers. In a world without brands, it takes a lot longer to find what you want because you have to work out whether a product is suitable, whether the quality is good and whether it is even the same product that you bought from the same place last time.
Mr Skapinker concludes that we should try standardised packaging in the hope that smoking prevalence will fall. I think he is wrong.
What is good though is that FT readers are debating this important issue. A few days later, Paul Tyndall from London had a letter published suggesting that if tobacco were introduced today it would be banned and tobacco companies would be like heroin dealers. In his mind, the tobacco industry should not be allowed to retain legal status.
A week later, Jem Eskenazi, also from London, responded to Mr Tyndall. Mr Eskenazi asked: “Would the food industry not be allowed to sell anything but fruit and vegetables?” He accepted that tobacco was harmful but said “I would rather live in a society where the harm is clearly spelt out, controls are put in place, and the promotion of the product to susceptible users is discouraged.”
The FT is allowing an important debate to flow on its pages but the debate misses a few salient points.
Firstly, in Australia anti-tobacco activists have estimated that the tobacco market can be reduced to about 3 per cent of adults smoking – based on the numbers of medical undergraduates who currently smoke in Sydney. These people are well informed about the risks but continue to smoke, it reasons. As less well informed people are also likely to smoke, perhaps we should accept that in 20 years time one adult in 10 will still smoke.
Secondly, if people continue to smoke, is it in the interest of government to destroy brands and probably in the process the big progress made by retailers in restricting the access of cigarettes to youngsters?
The heroin industry is quite large. The cannabis industry is costing energy groups £200m a year to run illegal cannabis farms across the UK, the FT reports. The police have detected more than 7,800 farms in the past year – more than double the number of four years ago. Are these people you can trust with marketing of unbranded tobacco product?
Thirdly, the tobacco industry is open about its issues. “We recognise that our products generate controversy; as such, we do not encourage people to smoke and we discourage youth smoking. We recognise the health risks of smoking and try to reduce them,” JTI says in is corporate policy. Local retailers understand that they have to be responsible. The government needs to do more to support the progress that has been made.
Local retailers who sell tobacco need to make sure their voice is heard. Writing to the FT may be one route. Writing in response to the government consultation is a better one. Click here and argue for the status quo as soon as you can.