On 16 March, the House of Lords passed a bill to standardise cigarette packaging in England from May next year. Following MPs voting in favour of the law earlier in the month, the UK-based tobacco giant British American Tobacco (BAT) confirmed that the company would sue the Government if plain packaging went ahead.
When I read this, I felt riled, and I imagine I’m not the only one. But I also asked the question: why would an industry that consistently ranks bottom (or thereabouts) in the corporate reputation and public opinion stakes take such a stance?
Australia implemented plain packaging in 2012 and research published in the BMJ’s Tobacco Control, and later presented at the World Conference on Tobacco or Health, supported the impact of the law after just two years. Plain packaging also has widespread public and medical support. This includes Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, who has encouraged governments to fight back against legal battles.
In a statement, BAT alleged consultation in the legislative process was "flawed" and that "since the introduction of plain packaging in Australia, the illegal tobacco market has grown by more than 25 per cent and is now at its highest level in seven years". While the industry has finally acknowledged the dangers of smoking, it still accounts for more than one-third of respiratory deaths in the UK, over a quarter of cancer deaths and about one in seven cardiovascular disease deaths, with a cost of around £12.9bn. But things are getting more challenging for the industry, particularly in the developed world.
BAT heralded its 2014 financial results as a "strong performance in a tough environment", and although tobacco consumption is rising in poorer countries, in the UK the prevalence of smoking has decreased year on year since 1974 when national surveys on smoking began.
This decline cannot be attributed to any one factor, but for many smoking, and by extension the tobacco industry itself, is now unacceptable. Effective communication to change our attitudes on smoking has been one of the greatest PR achievements of the past 40 years. This hasn’t happened overnight but as a result of successful collaborations between governments, health advocacy groups and others (including big pharma).
The arguments against smoking have been targeted, sophisticated, impactful and have dealt a grievous blow to one of the world’s most powerful industries. Last year the British Medical Association went as far as to call for a cigarette ban to those born after 2000, creating the first-tobacco free generation – radical thinking but does it signal the end for the industry?
Companies like BAT can see that, in the UK at least, the power they once wielded has now all but slipped away. It says it "supports balanced, evidence-based tobacco regulation that does not infringe our legal rights", but this potential legal challenge is another example of the industry flexing its muscles and taking an unscientific, unethical and morally questionable stance on a potentially life-saving, public health intervention.
Tamsin Tierney is MD of Tonic London