Scotland used to be a smoking nation. The 1970s left us with the lingering aroma of bad aftershave and tobacco. It wasn’t a good combination. A generation ago, almost half the population smoked. Tobacco adverts jumped out from magazines, billboards and newspapers. Smoking was a sociable habit. It was popular, cool, and generated millions every year for the big tobacco companies.
We now know the true cost of their profits. Half of regular smokers will die because of their addiction. It could be lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart attack, or stroke. Even nowadays, when less than one-quarter of the population lights up, 13,000 people die every year. That’s Linlithgow, Carnoustie, or Hawick wiped off the map every 12 months.
Thankfully, smoking rates have been falling, slowly but steadily, for years. More people know about the tragic consequences of smoking, both for themselves and families exposed to their second-hand smoke. Smoking has moved out of social spaces like pubs. And new laws have stopped the tobacco companies from advertising to recruit smokers.
The latest step in this battle is to get tobacco advertising away from the last few places it’s allowed. That means taking it off cigarette packs. This matters to those of us who work in lung health. And it really matters to the tobacco industry, who have been fighting hard to prevent it from happening.
A huge amount of research has gone into the impact of packaging on potential smokers. Like perfume bottles, the tobacco industry takes a great deal of time and money to make cigarette packs look attractive – to make them into “lifestyle products”. This clever and subtle messaging has a particular effect on young people. This matters because research has shown that two-thirds of regular smokers start before the legal age of 18, and two-fifths before 16. But almost no smokers start after the age of 25. That means that if we can stop the next generation from picking up the habit, we can win the battle against tobacco once and for all.
This is why we need plain packaging. But it’s not that easy. The tobacco companies know that getting kids in the door is essential if they want to keep raking in cash. So they’ve decided to throw everything they have into the fight against standardised packs. That means flinging scare stories. Here are a few you might have seen:
It’s an attack on smokers’ freedom. No it’s not. People will still be able to smoke exactly the same cigarettes.
Plain packs will make it easier for counterfeiters. Standardised packs will have the same sophisticated anti-counterfeiting methods packs have now. They’re not going to be simple white boxes – they’re a drab green colour with large photos of the harm caused by smoking.
You won’t be able to tell the difference between legal tobacco and illicit products. You will, in exactly the same way you can now. If your tobacco comes from a registered trader and it’s the normal price, it’s almost certainly legal. If you buy half price from the boot of a car, then it’s time to get suspicious.
It won’t make smokers quit. Nobody claims that it will. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the next generation. The children all across Scotland who over the next five to ten years will be Big Tobacco’s prime targets.
But it looks as though the government has seen through this distracting fug. Westminster has announced plans to put plain packs to a vote before the general election. The Scottish government has committed to ensuring that the UK law will apply here. But it still has to get through one last vote here to make it law.
The facts are in, and plain packaging will stop kids from starting smoking. The science is clear. The need is tragically obvious. We can’t delay – it’s time to protect Scotland’s children.
• Dr James Cant is head of British Lung Foundation Scotland, blf.org.uk