Tougher steps covering the sale and promotion of tobacco products are to be unveiled by ministers later.
The Department of Health in England is expected to say that it will push ahead with a ban on the display of tobacco products in shops in the coming years.
A consultation will also be launched on forcing tobacco companies to put cigarettes into plain packets.
The measures are part of a plan to drive down smoking rates, particularly among young people.
Just over a fifth of adults smoke – a figure which has remained pretty steady in recent years after decades of more rapid falls.
Both steps have been under discussion for a number of years with legislation to ban the display of tobacco products put in place by the Labour government before it lost power last year.
A number of countries, including Canada, Ireland, Iceland and Finland, have already introduced similar bans, while Scotland and Northern Ireland are moving in that direction. In England, it will be phased in over the next couple of years, the government is expected to say, after putting off the move when it came to power.
But England will be the first country in Europe to force tobacco companies to put cigarettes in plain, unbranded packets, if it goes ahead. Australia is due to introduce the measure in 2012.
The plain packaging measure is only a proposal at this stage and will be put forward for consultation. Campaigners believe it will make purchasing cigarettes less appealing and enhance the effectiveness of health warnings.
Anti-smoking legislation is becoming increasingly common.
Over the last decade alone there has been bans on advertising, smoking in public places and, from later this year, sales from vending machines.
The age at which people can buy cigarettes has also increased to 18.
And now ministers are seeking to ban displays in shops and perhaps force manufacturers to use plain packaging.
But a quick look at smoking rates explains why government is taking an increasingly tough stance.
In the 1950s, when the link between smoking and lung cancer was established beyond doubt, eight in 10 men smoked.
By 1974, 45% of adults were smokers and this continued to fall until it dipped under a quarter in 2001.
But since then the numbers have started levelling off. Some 21% of adults still smoke, with manual groups twice as likely to do so as professional groups.
What is more, the numbers of child smokers remain worryingly high. One in seven 15-year-olds say they are regular smokers.
Both measures will be set out as part of the government’s tobacco control strategy, which marks the start of the publication of a series of public health plans. Separate strategies on alcohol and drugs are expected in the coming months.
Martin Dockrell, of the campaign group Ash, said there was “strong evidence” that the measures would stop people taking up smoking.
On banning shop displays, he added: “Regular smokers know what brand they smoke before they go into the shop and don’t need a display to remind them. In truth, these displays serve two functions – they promote brands to new young smokers and they trigger sales to people who did not intend to buy. Every morning when the ex-smoker goes into a shop to buy a paper the tobacco companies are waiting for them, putting their brand in front of them.”
Shadow public health minister Diane Abbott said she welcomed the moves, but said they were “building on” what Labour had done through its anti-smoking legislation, including the ban on smoking in public places and on the advertising of tobacco products.
But ahead of publication of the strategy, the government was criticised by a Tory backbencher.
Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, said the plain packaging plan was “gesture politics of the worst kind” and would represent a “triumph for the nanny state”.
Defending himself in the House of Commons, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said the purpose of his plans was to reduce the “number of people smoking and as a consequence avoidable deaths and disease”.
But Debbie Corris, of the Tobacco Retailers Alliance, said: “There is no evidence this will reduce smoking. If anything, plain packaging will cause a problem with more counterfeiting – plain packets are not that difficult to copy – while banning displays will hit smaller retailers hard. We are disappointed about this.”
National Tobacco Plan has just been launched – see below.
Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A Tobacco Control Plan for England is available at: http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/
Set out below are bullet points on the key elements of the Tobacco Plan. It is a strong document which builds on the previous government’s strategy launched before the election last year. It says very clearly that ‘comprehensive tobacco control is more than just providing local stop smoking services or enforcing smokefree legislation’ and contains a strong commitment to changing social norms around smoking. Key elements include:
- Ambitions to reduce smoking amongst adults to 18.5% or less by the end of 2015 from 21.2% in 2009/10; reduce smoking amongst 15 year olds from 15% in 2009 to 12% or less by 2015; and to reduce smoking in pregnancy from 14% in 2009/10 to 11% by 2015 (1.15);
- Commitment to working with civil society to guide the implementation of this plan (1.18)
- Commitment to implement the display legislation in large shops in April 2012 and small shops in April 2015 with some minor adjustments to the regulations to reduce the costs to retailers (3.5);
- Commitment to consult on plain packaging before the end of the year (3.7);
- Allowing for commissioning over wider geographical areas (1.14)
- Commitment to working to reduce the depiction of smoking in the media (3.11)
- Support for the continued provision of stop smoking services including harm reduction measures (chapter 6)
- Commitment to publishing a 3 year marketing strategy including mass media campaigns;
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