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Walk in to a local shop or supermarket tomorrow and a mainstay of shelves will be missing forever.

As of May 20, it’s illegal for retailers to sell branded cigarette packs. This follows a landmark ruling from MPs back in March 2015 that all tobacco products should be sold in drab, standardised packaging that’s littered with large health warnings.

Manufacture of branded packs halted in May last year, and tomorrow retailers will have to stop selling their branded stock. This marks the final nail in the coffin of tobacco advertising.

How cigarette packs are changing

In the UK, the shift to standardised packaging follows a long line of policies to tackle tobacco. In the 1950s, we part-funded the first study to link tobacco with cancer. Since then, governments in the UK have shown their commitment to eliminating deaths caused by tobacco.

There have been successful tax increases to make tobacco less affordable, many mass media campaigns convincing smokers to quit, and a ban on smoking in public places.

As a result of all these initiatives, smoking rates have dropped from more than 50% in the 70s to an all-time low today of around 17% in the UK.

Tobacco control policy

That’s a huge success. In fact, the UK was recently voted the best European country for effective tobacco control policies by the Tobacco Control Scale. And in terms of advertising, the UK has led the way. In 1965, the British government banned TV advertising of cigarettes. This was followed a decade later by a ban on sports sponsorship, and in 2015 point of sale displays in shops.

Now, standardised packaging is added to this list.

So, with branding gone from packs and that final piece of advertising removed, the big question now is: what effect will standard packs have?

Do standard packs work?

A couple of weeks ago, the Cochrane Collaboration, which reviews large collections of healthcare evidence, published a study offering an early glimpse of the impact standard packs could have. The study, led by researchers from London and Oxford, found that based on the available evidence from Australia, who swapped the packs in 2012, standardised packaging may reduce smoking rates.

At the moment that evidence is limited because the new packs simply haven’t been around long enough for us to see the full impact. But this is a positive early indication.

In fact, the researchers estimate that smoking rates in the UK could go down by 0.5% by May 2018, which – based on our calculations – could mean 257,000 fewer cigarette smokers as a result of standardised packs.

Tracking this impact will be an ongoing topic for researchers. And we’re funding several studies to evaluate the impact of standard packs in the UK.

Among other things, the studies will measure what young people and adults think about packs, including how they perceive the contents. These studies will also look at the impact of plain packs on the numbers of people smoking, new people starting, and the numbers trying to stop. They will also look at changes in the price and variation in price between tobacco brands, changes in consumer behaviour, impact on tobacco industry profitability and tobacco industry tactics to try and dodge the legislation.

It will take years to see the full influence of standard packs, but it’s crucial to evaluate a policy like this every step of the way. The early evidence is showing that they are having an impact in Australia. And the tobacco industry knows this.

Why is it important to evaluate?

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry hasn’t been a fan of the makeover to packs.

Several lawsuits have been filed against countries, including the UK, who have decided to introduce standard packs. In these legal challenges the industry claims, among other things, that packs will increase illicit trade because they can be easily replicated (there is no evidence to support this claim), and that not allowing a company to show its brand on packs is an infringement on its trademark. They also claim the legislation breaches human rights.

In a court case in the UK, a lawyer for Japan Tobacco even argued the tobacco industry should receive a multi-billion dollar compensation for lost profits, comparing the situation to the compensation given to slave owners when slavery was abolished.

The tobacco industry hasn’t won one of these legal cases. So why keep trying?

The lawsuits are yet another tactic employed by the industry to cast doubt over the policy, even though there’s no evidence to back up the claims being made. This means they are trying to dissuade other countries from introducing plain packs by threatening costly and time consuming legal challenges.

And that’s why it’s so important for countries like the UK to measure the impact of standardised packs.

If the policy is effective at reducing smoking rates and demoralising the tobacco industry, then this needs to be proved. And if it is proved, that information needs to be shared with the world. We need to lead the way for other countries to implement this law, especially in the case of those who don’t have the resources to fight these inevitable legal challenges.

The good news is that public health is winning this battle. Two weeks ago, it was reported that the World Trade Organisation has decided to back Australia’s laws on plain packs, deciding that packs don’t unjustifiably infringe upon trademark rights.

There’s also a growing list of countries that have decided to swap branded packs for standard ones. France has now completely switched, and New Zealand, Norway, Hungary, Sweden, Finland, Turkey, Bulgaria and Canada are following on behind.

We still have a long way to go. But we believe that building on evidence we have, we will help strengthen the case to eliminate tobacco advertising globally, for good.

Alyssa Best is a policy advisor at Cancer Research UK

Comments

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Christianah Oyeyinka May 25, 2017

CRUK, WELL DONE.

Angels Landing May 24, 2017

“Smoking rates decline with action” “Smoking rates don’t come down on their own” Indeed they do or they don’t, as the case may be. However, both of these encouraging statements – and the time line diagram – have one rather large omission and that is that currently 1.5 million people have stopped smoking with the use of e cigarettes. I could, of course, provide links to the positive research conclusions and recommendations by many of our Public Health organisations but there would be no need as Cancer Research are aware of these and indeed are themselves positive about the role of e cigarettes in reducing the harm from combustible tobacco and as a consequence reducing the number of smokers. That there is no reference to e cigarettes is a lost opportunity – if smokers are not being made aware of e cigarettes as an safer alternative to smoking, how are they to make an informed choice?

Jean Bayliss May 20, 2017

I have never smoked but have empathy for those who choose to smoke. My husband’s Father, a lovely man, chain-smoked all his life and it caused his death. It has also contributed towards my Husband suffering from asthma, bronchitis and chest related illnesses. If the tobacco companies are successful in bringing lawsuits to reclaim lost profits, the Law should in turn award the NHS considerable compensation for costs incurred in treating smoking related illnesses. I am an avid supporter of cancer research, being a survivor and I am proud of those involved in this successful campaign.

Mac Harrison May 20, 2017

Brilliant work!!!! Well done!!!
So proud of what you have accomplished so far… Keep going to achieve the ultimate objectives…cure CANCER and ban deadly cigarettes entirely!!!!

Martin Danny Connaughton May 20, 2017

It’s great to know that our time writing to local MPs etc was worthwhile. Take a bow everyone!

Helen Blake May 19, 2017

The government are now going to aim the campaign at vapour as they now realise that!!!!! Yes smoking is bad but it brought in a lot of revenue so go after the people who did stop with the help of e cigarettes and get back the money. Good on everyone who stopped smoking as they did it for health reasons but shame on the government for picking on them again.

Elizabeth Callaghan May 19, 2017

Glad to hear this. I’m an ex smoker but gave up many years ago, thank goodness. I watched my sister die from cancer and it was so traumatic.

Brian Smith May 19, 2017

Another nail in the tobacco coffin.Even if it makes a small reduction in tobacco use it will be worth while. A very great deal has already been achieved and every little helps.

Keith Tanner May 19, 2017

Who is responsible for enforcing the legislation?
Without a robust regulator it will be pointless legislation.

Rogercharles0193336@gmail.com May 19, 2017

After 15years of smoking in 1973 I gave up smoking and i haven’t smoked a cigarette since.

Mrs Una Widdett May 19, 2017

I am really pleased to hear this and hope it has the required impact .
This has reminded me that I need to make another donation to CRUK .

justsaying79 May 19, 2017

I have been around smokers for all my life and I’m in my late 30’s, and I don’t have any health issues relating to smoking and neither do those whom smoke have any illness relating to smoking.

My husband gave up smoking when we got married in 2002 and was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2013, he hadn’t been smoking for 11 years when he was diagnosed..

Education in schools is where it needs to start and starting at 10 years of age and carried out through secondary schools and into college..

I will always support cancer research

But I also think its an individuals choice if they wish to smoke..

L Hodgson May 19, 2017

Obviously it is preferable for people not to smoke but I do believe there should still be sales of packets of 10. Some people who stuck to 10 a day previously are now buying packets of 20 and smoking more than 10 a day!!

sylvia cafferkey May 19, 2017

Fabulous my husband could still be alive if it had happened earlier, he died of lung cancer in 2009

Ian Holland May 19, 2017

This can only be the right way forward, these evil ‘cancer sticks’ should no longer be sold in bright packaging and hopefully the cigarette companies will see their profits slump largely, because for too long now they have put the lives of millions at risk and sentenced them to a long and lingering death. I cannot believe there are examples of tobacco companies bringing lawsuits in order to reclaim any lost profits and it is only just that they should be targeted with these punitive measures.

My father had a heart attack after he smoked cigarettes, cigars and pipes, thankfully he survived. He immediately gave up all forms of smoking and lived over 20 more years until he was 90.

Lee-Anne May 19, 2017

Excellent news, this is a great achievement and will save the NHS millions of pounds, and most importantly it will help save lives and encourage people to make healthy choices. Smoking is a disgusting habit.
The government and Department of health should ban parents from liting up cigarettes outside school gates to.

L. Hembury May 19, 2017

I lost my father with lung cancer over 40 years ago (not a particularly heavy smoker but died at the age of 48 within 3 months)and my younger sister smoked on and off and died from a tenuously smoking-linked cancer 5 years ago, so I have some experience. My mother died from a non-smoking related cancer 22 years ago. By the way, she was slim, took plenty of exercise, had never smoked and did not drink.
Do I think putting cigarettes in plain packets will make a difference – probably not – it could make them more attractive to younger people. If you have an addictive personality, you have one. If it isn’t cigarettes, it will be something else. I think Cancer Research needs to spend more of its resources educating young people in School about Smoking, drugs, the dangers of taking pills as a cure-all, diet, safe sex, good exercise habits, etc. A healthy life style – moderation being the key – anything other than this does not work. This needs to be done right through School, from 5-18. Plain packets are shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Spend your money where it is going to make a real difference – PREVENTION. If young people don’t start there isn’t a problem to solve. Please do not send me an automated response.

anne ashurst May 19, 2017

I want to know why this does not apply to Whiskey Gin Wine bottles ,their are people out their who may not smoke but they drink ,

Lesley Skeavington May 19, 2017

I think that is excellent. Anything that stops people smoking is definitely a good thing.