CITING a need for more evidence, the UK government has decided to postpone requiring cigarette manufacturers to wrap their products in plain packaging.
The Scottish Government, however, is to press ahead with banning the use of eye-catching labels and decoration. Scottish ministers are right and deserve commendation.
UK ministers, previously quite certain of the benefits of demanding plain packaging, appear to have suddenly become unsure. Opposition spokespeople have accused them of caving into the well-funded lobbying campaigns of the tobacco manufacturers. It seems more likely that they have become wary of stirring up controversy and offending too many voters – the government’s consultation on the issue having revealed that public opinion on the issue is highly polarised.
The decision also to defer legislating on the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol, where ministers now seem to fear offending moderate drinkers, seems to confirm that analysis. If so, it means that the coalition now seems to be entering a pre-election semi-purdah period during which only non-controversial legislation will be considered.
Rather implausibly, opponents of the plain packaging proposal say it is an assault on consumers’ rights to choose. The argument is without merit as smokers are well aware of the brands on offer and don’t need gaudy wrappings to guide their choice. Plain packaging is aimed at minimising the stimulus which encourages youngsters to start smoking.
And given that the cost of treating the illnesses which smoking causes falls on taxpayers in general, society is entitled to adopt measures through the democratic process which minimises the cost to society.
The only point which seems to deserve consideration is that plain packaging is easy to forge, which will make it easier for criminals who trade in illegal tobacco. Although this concern has been raised by tobacco manufacturers primarily concerned about the leakage in their profits, there is also a public health concern in that some of the tobacco used in this trade contains toxic chemicals absent in the legally produced cigarettes. The point could be addressed by requiring the use of water-marked plain paper, which is more difficult for criminals to copy.
But the over-riding concern here ought to be with public health and preventing the consumption of substances which have been proven to cause ill-health. Illustrated packaging has been proven to cause increased consumption; it is, after all, designed to attract attention and encourage anyone seeing it to buy it. UK ministers should be more courageous; previous moves aimed at restricting smoking have come into force and been widely accepted. There is no reason to think that attitudes to plain packaging would be any different.
Immigration muddle just gets worse
Revelations that there are now more than half a million immigrants waiting to hear whether they will be allowed to stay in Britain or not are marginally only slightly less astonishing than the admission that at current rates, it will take nearly 40 years to clear the backlog, during which time, presumably, hundreds of thousands more will join the queue.
Immigration, and the bureaucratic machinery for handling it, are matters where successive governments have declared, pre-election, the existing circumstances to be disgraceful and have promised clear-up action only to discover, when in office, that they are presiding over a worsening regime.
The Conservatives’ promise was to sort out the UK Border Agency, which they attempted by abolishing it and creating separate organisations, one for handling immigration and visas, the other in charge of border enforcement. This, it seems has only succeeded in creating greater muddle.
Moreover, at a time when Whitehall has been told to cut down on the use of external consultants, spending on this has rocketed nearly 20-fold. Meantime both the number of foreign-born criminal offenders and the length of time taken to deport them is increasing.
It is hard to disagree with the MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee who have uncovered these matters, that there are simply not enough people employed to deal with immigration and that reorganisation of the agency supposed to deal with it is a failure. Some immigration cases are complex, but most are relatively straightforward. It cannot be beyond the wit of ministers to provide structures and people able to handle immigration.