New laws on tobacco and vaping are another step towards bootleg Britain

It is a reflection of the EU’s democratic deficit that smokers and vapers have only recently become aware of a Brussels directive that will directly affect them. The public shouldn’t feel too bad about being kept in the dark. David Cameron and several members of the House of Lords didn’t know much about it either. Nor did Anna Soubry, and she was minister for public health when the directive was passed.

The Tobacco Products Directive, which comes into force today, regulates tobacco and e-cigarette products down to the last detail. Packs of ten will be banned. Most e-cigarette advertising will be banned. High strength e-cigarette fluid will be banned. Large tank e-cigarette devices will be banned. In 2020, menthol cigarettes will be banned. As if that were not enough, the UK is gold-plating the directive today by introducing so-called plain packaging.

What effect will this frenzy of legislation have on consumers? In the short term, not much. Retailers are allowed to sell old stock until May 21 2017 and there is certain to be old stock available for most of the next year. After that, however, vapers will be faced with less choice and inferior products while smokers will be forced to buy larger packs of cigarettes in silly packaging.

I have written about the e-cigarette regulations before so let’s look at what’s happening with tobacco. The ban on packs of ten is particularly bizarre. Nudge theorists such as Cass Sunstein recommend that governments force tobacco companies to sell cigarettes in smaller packs because smokers use them as aids to self-restraint. The EU is doing the exact opposite, forcing smokers to keep plenty of cigarettes on them and reducing the number of times they need to make the conscious decision to buy tobacco from a shop. At a time when ‘public health’ campaigners are demanding smaller chocolate bars, their anti-smoking colleagues are demanding larger servings of tobacco. Such is the prohibitionist zeal of the nicotine nannies that even this patently nonsensical ban has been welcomed by the likes of ASH.

Then there is plain packaging, a policy that rose to prominence for no apparent reason other than the anti-smoking lobby needing something to justify its continued existence at taxpayers’ expense. The evidence put forward for it has never amounted to more than asking focus groups if they find ugly packaging ugly and it remains an awkward fact for its proponents that cigarette sales in Australia rose for the first time in years as soon as the old Labor government introduced it. Smokers have been clobbered with tax hikes ever since in an effort to force sales back down.

If you believe that people start smoking because of colour schemes and logos, the idea of turning cigarette packs olive green might not seem entirely absurd. If, on the other hand, you are on nodding terms with reality, the only obvious consequences of plain packaging are that counterfeiters will have their costs lowered and smokers who want their cigarettes in familiar branded packs will turn to the black and grey markets.

HMRC says the illicit tobacco market has risen by 24 per cent in the last five years. It currently amounts to £2.1 billion in lost tax revenue. Such figures are only guesstimates, however, and the black market could be even larger.

Considering the scale of the tax gap, it is surprising that HMRC does not try harder to get reliable figures. In the old days, the government collected empty cigarette packs at football matches to see how many of them came from the UK. Budget cuts put an end to that, but thanks to plain packaging the true scale of the problem could soon become obvious to anyone who frequents a beer garden.

This time next year, any cigarette pack you see that is not in plain packaging will have been bought abroad or on the black market. The same will be true of any menthol cigarette you see after 2020, not to mention all the vaping fluids and paraphernalia that are being outlawed by the EU. By necessity, Britain is becoming a nation of bootleggers. One unintended consequence of plain packaging will be that this becomes visible to all.


  • SteveW

    The pack size bit is truly baffling, but a potential boon to producers of rolling tobacco – effectively only one pack size (50g), no design costs for packaging and a guarantee that people will ‘bulk’ buy. Also possible downward price pressure as the ‘brands’ will no longer stand out from the budget tobaccos.

  • JonathanBagley

    What will the average consumption of ten a day smokers rise to?

    • Robert Innes

      I would think, ultimately, 20 a day. They are there, so why not smoke them. Of course that is the whole point of the directive. (1) Make people think the measures prevent smoking and justify, ‘my’ job, and, (2) keep people smoking and with a bit of luck, smoking more – especially the young who will find the plain packs, buying contraband, and defying puritanical elders more satisfying than the act of smoking itself.

  • Stephen Helfer

    It is heartening to read that smoking rates in Australia have risen. It indicates that some members of the public are defying the professional anti-tobacco activists. Plain packaging is designed not primarily to suppress smoking, but more as matter of activists demonstrating their power and doing all they can do to deny smokers the pleasure they derive from tobacco.

  • Daniel Hammond

    Welcome to the Roaring 1920s everybody!

  • Zarniwoop

    I would often buy a pack of 10 fags in order to control my smoking (it’s too expensive not for health reasons I enjoy it) the trouble is when you have a pack of 20 smokes you tend to smoke more. As for rolling tobacco then it is all too easy to get packs from other places other than retail.

    The whole point about the TPD is not to get smokers to quit but in fact to encourage them to smoke more and keep smoking so that:
    a. The govt. gets their tax duty revenue
    b. Big pharma keeps their army of serial quitters (£3billion a year)
    c. Public Health keeps the gravy train rolling along
    d. Tobacco companies keep their revenue
    e. The vaping companies keep their revenue from serial quitters
    f. Certain bloggers and public health experts keep their revenue and high profile nannying fame, publicity what have you

    In the end not one of these groups ever really gives a damn about smokers.

    We are just cows to be milked over and over again.

    In all these discussions when if ever have smokers ever been asked or consulted? The answer is never.

    They are all just squabbling like vultures over the corpse.

  • nisakiman

    In the old days, the government collected empty cigarette packs at
    football matches to see how many of them came from the UK. Budget cuts
    put an end to that…

    I don’t think they would find many cigarette packs at football stadia now anyway. As I understand it, they banned smoking in football grounds ages ago.

    The whole plain packs thing is a completely pointless exercise, unless the aim is just to further inconvenience smokers. Even that aim is not going to be very successful, as people will ignore the grotesque packaging just as they’ve always ignored the increasingly shrill warnings that for smokers, the sky is about to fall.

    One wonders what the next lunatic idea will be to ‘help’ all these smokers who supposedly want to quit. (Of course, as Carl Phillips has pointed out numerous times, the figures that ASH et al flourish that ‘70% want to quit’ are in reality mostly people who would ‘like to want’ to quit, which is something else altogether). What Tobacco Control also don’t seem to understand is that their idea of ‘helping’ smokers quit is akin to the farmer flogging his horse near to death to ‘help’ it pull the heavy cart.

    Yes, the unintended consequences of this latest move will be many, and expensive for the government. But Tobacco Control will never, ever, ever admit they got it wrong. It’s not in their DNA to admit anything. They will see the consequences of their actions, blame smokers and get together to devise yet more legislation to try to address it. Well, as already pointed out, they are on a handsomely funded gravy train, and the longer they can keep it going, the better. Their snouts are deep in the taxpayer’s trough, and they like it.

  • Vinny Gracchus

    Repeal these draconian laws regulating tobacco and nicotine. Plain packages don’t reduce smoking and the health risks that inspired smoking bans are false. The tobacco control movement is about paper and not health. They seek prohibition but as always organized crime will benefit.

  • disqus_PqiGxd2NWv

    Can I still get the 50g pouch after May 2017?