Opinion: Plain Packaging: Will Tobacco Be the End or Just the Beginning?

While I think I was pleased to see the vote by MPs earlier this month, introducing plain packaging for tobacco products, it did also set off faint alarm bells – with me at least. There is something rather drastic about passing a law that requires legally produced and distributed goods to be wrapped in plain card or paper – even if the move was approved by Parliament based on medical evidence. I almost feel it would have been better to actually ban tobacco products altogether.

To be honest, obesity is not that far behind smoking as a leading cause of early death. We know that obesity is partly fuelled by attractively-packaged foods, high in sugar and fat, freely available on every supermarket shelf in the UK. High-street fast food chains – whose rise has been, seemingly, unstoppable – are another contributor to the problem. Britain now spends over £45 billion each year dealing with the health and social care costs associated with an increasingly overweight population.  

Should high-fat, high-sugar products therefore not at least carry a health warning (which is where it all started with cigarettes after all)? Some supermarket chains already have a traffic light system for foods, labelling them green, amber or red according to their content, but, given the law change for tobacco products, wouldn’t the next logical step be the plain packaging of unhealthy foods?  Also, what about the effects of fizzy drinks on dental health and alcohol on liver disease – and behaviour? How many people are now clogging up A&E because of alcohol abuse, which is also associated with violent behaviour, including domestic abuse? Are we going to take the labels off bottles of spirits and insist on plain lager cans?

Some would say that tobacco is the worst offender in terms of the damage it causes to health through lung cancer and respiratory disease, therefore warranting the plain packaging move, but as long ago as 2009, a longitudinal study of adolescents in the British Medical Journal identified obesity as being as significant a cause of early death as smoking because of the link between obesity and diabetes, heart disease and stroke. A more recent US study has confirmed this conclusion. And while 24.5% of the UK adult population is classified as obese (and a much higher 64% designated as either obese or overweight), a lower percentage – 22% of adult men and 17% of adult women – now smoke (Source: ASH, 2015)

Plain packaging of cigarettes is probably a good idea because of the particular and deathly hazards of tobacco and the unacceptable risks associated with passive smoking, but how far do we go? While no one wants to live in a world where we walk into the supermarket to find a significant proportion of the food or alcohol products in plain packaging, we do need some consistency here.

The dilemma in a nutshell is this: extending plain packaging to certain foods, alcohol or fast foods, might be seen as highly authoritarian; some would even say insisting on the plain packaging of cigarettes is authoritarian. But on the other hand we need a consistent approach because medical evidence points to the fact that obesity is now becoming as significant a cause of avoidable death as smoking.

* Judy is a Lib Dem member living in Bath and she works for a think tank in London.