By Max Clarke

In time for No Smoking Day, the government has published Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A Tobacco Control Plan for England. In the report, six key areas are identified for action to help reduce the number of smokers from 21.2 percent to 18.5 percent by 2015. Among these are: stopping the promotion of tobacco; making tobacco less affordable; and the effective regulation of tobacco products.

“The measures announced today will help reduce smoking rates, protect children from being tempted to start smoking and help adults who are trying to quit.” said Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England.

“I also welcome the commitment by the Government to look further at tobacco packaging and to consider whether a requirement for plain packaging might bring additional public health benefits, all of which keep up the essential momentum needed to create a truly smokefree future.” Continued Dame Davies.

The proposals have, however, not been universally welcomed and the packaging proposal has been dubbed a ‘counterfeiters’ charter’.

Unite, the UK's largest trade union representing thousands of members employed by or reliant on the tobacco industry, said that plain packaging would cut the costs for the illegal industry, would have little or no effect on levels of smoking but put many workers' jobs at risk.

"Counterfeiters have sophisticated their forgeries of current packaging to the point where even the trained eye sometimes misses the fakes," said Jennie Formby, Unite national officer for tobacco workers.

"Switching to plain packaging will make it easier to sell their illicit and unregulated products especially to young people. That would undermine the regulated industry, may increase long-term health problems and put workers in the regulated industry out of work. Government revenues would suffer significantly and pressure on health spending increase."

Ms. Formby said criminal gangs selling counterfeit cigarettes in the UK were well documented. The issue had been covered timely and in some detail by the BBC Panorama programme only this week (see link below).

The document said: "plain packaging may exacerbate the illicit tobacco market as it could be easier for counterfeit products to replicate the plain packages than current tobacco packaging." It went on to say: "as there are no jurisdictions where plain packaging of tobacco products is required, the research evidence into this initiative is speculative" and "the introduction of plain packaging may set a precedent for the plain packaging of other consumer products."

Unite has significant numbers of members in BAT, JTI and Imperial, the three major tobacco companies in the UK. Imperial and JTI have major manufacturing sites in Nottingham and Ballymena respectively. BAT has a major research and development operation at Southampton.

The industry employs around 6,000 people directly in production and distribution of tobacco products many of whom are skilled manufacturing workers. The tobacco industry is also a major client of the print and logistics industries where Unite also has significant membership interests.