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Thursday 22 January 2015, David Bowden

Plain packs: political principle goes up in smoke

David Cameron's announcement shows short-term political advantage now trumps liberal values.

In a sudden move yesterday, the UK prime minister, David Cameron, announced that MPs will be given a free vote on plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes in the UK from 2016. This is despite the government announcing in 2013 that it would wait until after the general election to do so, following a public consultation where nearly two-thirds of respondents opposed such an illiberal measure.

The arguments in favour of plain packs have consistently proven to be built on flimsy evidence and dodgy assertions: as Claire Fox noted back in 2012, for instance, young women were viewed as particularly susceptible to ‘pink foil’. Claims about the success of plain packs in Australia, the only other country to have introduced such legislation, seems to studiously ignore the long-term decline in smoking rates, not to mention the rise of e-cigarettes and tobacco alternatives.

So why the sudden zeal for plain packaging right here, right now? The Tories were stung by (unfounded) allegations that their decision to delay plain packaging was down to the influence of Big Tobacco, rather than a sensible attitude to policy-making or – god forbid – adherence to liberal values. Far from being a principled decision based on genuine concerns about public health, Cameron’s move looks like a desperate attempt to prevent Labour from claiming that the Tories are in the pocket of tobacco lobbyists.

But there is a wider issue here, too. As I argued at the time, the lifestyle moralising represented by measures such as plain packaging have an addictive, seductive appeal to ideas-light political parties desperately searching for some sense of purpose or zeal. Depressingly, there seems little rationale for this sudden move - which represents a significant intervention both for smokers and for businesses trying to present their products as they wish - other than to get a jump on Labour, ahead of one of the most politically conformist elections in memory.

Yet this move has greater ramifications than posturing policy that will likely make little real difference to people taking up smoking. As was noted in one of the liveliest sessions from last year’s Battle – Kindergarten culture: why does government treat us like children?  – once these kind of intrusions are justified in relation to smoking, it’s open season on any number of issues deemed to be a matter of public health.

As the session illustrates, these arguments go beyond both sides trading evidence over effective policy. They are about fundamental issues and assumptions around free will, individual autonomy and the ability of adults to live in a free, liberal society. That these arguments are often ignored – and as I discovered last year sometimes happily evaded – is the most troubling aspect of all. As the researcher Christopher Snowdon has noted, many of plain packaging’s strongest advocates went to considerable lengths to make sure no parliamentary vote was needed at all if the health secretary deemed it so.

Those politicians and health campaigners who put so much faith in the manipulative power of the advertising Mad Men will inevitably only be strengthened by the success of the campaign for plain packaging. The trend for undermining our freedoms - whether about bad lifestyles or anything else - will only be encouraged by this announcement. Whoever wins the election in May, expect more of the same in the years ahead.

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