Brian Monteith: Public health just a smokescreen

As the government waits to decide on standardised cigarette packaging, watch out for it happening to alcohol too, writes Brian Monteith

Smoking and drinking are matters of public health so allow the government to react to alarmist campaigners. Picture: PA

It is very easy to lose sight of what is happening around you in politics. The all-consuming independence referendum now grabs so much attention that it squeezes most other domestic news in Scotland far down the rankings so that it is often missed – or drives people to distraction by boredom.

Meanwhile the harrowing events in the Middle East are not going to go away because the West’s moral relativism gives succour to amoral fanatics who believe life has no price. Too many of our politicians continue to equate freely-elected democrats with murderers who execute summarily without trial their brethren for having the wrong religion. Being unable to distinguish between the forces of good and evil is now so endemic that even some of our councils now stand accused of siding with the forces of barbarity.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

So it would not surprise me if you did not notice that the other week the UK government’s consultation on the standardised packaging of tobacco products closed and a response is now awaited. The Scottish Government is very keen on this particular measure, as it fits in with its bullying of the masses approach to public health. It has for the moment accepted that the UK government is better placed to take the lead in the matter, although it reserves the right to bring forward its own measures if David Cameron keeps to his word and awaits the arrival of empirical evidence from Australia where the measure is now law.

Standardised packaging means the removal of all brand colouring, logos, typestyles, embossing and other identifiable markings and their replacement with a new and intentionally ugly presentation of faeces-like colouring, small uniform fonts for names, and large repulsive photographs associated with a claim about death or disease that is not always substantiated by any provable evidence. The purpose is not only to try and convince new smokers to avoid taking up the practice, but to stigmatise and denormalise those that are already smoking as being beyond the pale.

Brand identities that have had millions, if not billions, invested in them are set to be consigned to dust. The advocates of robbing these intellectual property rights from the legitimate businesses that own them have always tried to say that such an extreme approach was allowable because it was only limited to tobacco. Upon their taxpayer-funded reputations they would swear in print and before public committees that there would be no domino theory, no slippery slope down which our politicians would tumble with similar proposals for other sinful or potentially harmful but legal products – such as alcohol or fatty, sugary or salty foods.

It was of course all a sham, a deception designed to win over the support of the more gullible politicians who are open to persuasion that “something must be done”.

The deceit was revealed just after the government consultation on standardised packaging closed, by the publication of ten demands by Westminster’s all-party parliamentary group on alcohol misuse that included a call for significantly large photographic warnings about alcohol harm on labels for wine and beer. Chaired by Tory MP Tracey Crouch, and including Labour’s MP for Dumfries and Galloway, Russell Brown, the group is purely advisory but has the ability to push ideas that political parties then pick up and include in their legislative programmes. This is why the anti-smoking campaigner ASH acts as the secretariat for the APG on Smoking and Health and why the campaign Alcohol Concern acts as the secretariat for the APG on Alcohol Misuse.

The inevitable and inexorable next step from large warning labels would of course be the standardised packaging of all alcohol products on sale in the UK – no brand labelling for so many household names brewed, distilled, blended and bottled in Scotland. One might say Famous Grouse no more, Smirnoff no more and Gordon’s no more – or at least not in any way you could easily identify them on the off-licence shelves.

The idea is, of course, absurd on a number of levels. There can hardly be anyone who imbibes who does not know of the existing government warnings about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. Indeed in the current bully state climate I would expect that members of the public are far less likely to know of the general health benefits of a moderate consumption of alcohol, for which evidence abounds but that our public health authorities do not wish to talk about, far less admit to.

The supporters of introducing large warning labels on alcohol packaging say that it is to target people who abuse themselves rather than the responsible majority, but this is also a deception, because the purpose of universal labelling is to target everyone. Health warnings on cigarette packs were not introduced to influence problem smokers but to try and stop everyone smoking – and the same would apply to drinkers of alcohol. With standardised packaging the intention of large graphic warnings would be, as with tobacco, to stigmatise the consumer.

The commoditisation of manufactured goods removes the added value that branding gives so that consumers decide their purchases on price – meaning they can trade down and thus afford to consume more. All the evidence coming out of Australia where brand packaging has been removed from cigarettes shows that the cheapest brands are gaining market share.

The evidence on illicit sales of tobacco in Australia is also revealing, where cigarette smuggling has increased from 82 million sticks detected in 2010-11 to 200 million sticks detected (after the new packaging laws) in 2012-13 – resulting in a growth in duty evasion of A$135m (£75.9m) to A$151m (£84.8m). It is beyond dispute that removing brand identities simply encourages the black market with all the consequential increase in risks from increased consumption and a lack of quality assurance, meaning more harmful tobacco or alcohol products are readily available – surely the antithesis of any public health measure?

While consumption rates of alcohol fall (including amongst younger drinkers) the alarmism of taxpayer-funded campaigners carries on unabated, demanding pseudo-prohibition that affects all drinkers – ignoring real social causes and cultural behaviours that make alcoholism in the UK a genuine concern. As cheerleaders for minimum pricing of alcohol and standardised packaging of tobacco the SNP cannot blame London. It is time to see in clear view which politicians are drunk on power for its own sake.