Tobacco giants have spoken out about the impact a no-deal Brexit could have on cigarette packaging, with some saying it will boost black market sales.
Currently, regulation of tobacco products in the UK is controlled by a number of European Union (EU) laws, including the Tobacco Products Directive 2014 and the Tobacco Advertising Directive 2003. This applies to both hinged-lid cigarette packs, pouch-style loose tobacco packs and e-cigarette packs.
These laws work alongside UK regulation, which forced manufacturers to strip tobacco packaging of individual branding, colour and design in 2015, as part of a Government drive to reduce sales and cut smoking.
UK will swap EU images for Australia’s if no-deal
The UK uses the EU’s photo library for its packaging, which show the effects of smoking through images depicting disease, emotional distress and other long-term complications.
If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, it will lose access to some EU resources and regulation, and the Government has confirmed that Australia will provide the UK with warning images free of charge, instead.
“Australia is a global lead on tobacco control, and their graphic picture warnings have been evaluated and assessed as effective,” says a spokesperson at the Department of Health and Social Care.
“Our priority remains to ensure tobacco products continue to be properly regulated once we leave the EU,” they add. “Graphic picture warnings are a key part of tobacco control and it is extremely important that we continue to include them.”
Tobacco manufacturers will need to ensure that products produced from 29 March onwards, which is still the UK’s exit day from the EU, feature the new Australian pictures. However, products produced before this featuring EU photos can be sold for 12 months from exit day.
Tobacco giants have told the Independent that changing packaging will “cost the industry millions” and will be “environmentally damaging”, given that there will be wasted stock that can no longer be used and production of new packs will be necessary.
Disruption could give a step up to “illicit trade”
Speaking to Design Week, a spokesperson at global tobacco manufacturer Japan Tobacco International (JTI) has also voiced concerns that there could be “disruption to the legal tobacco supply chain” if the Government does not make a copyright agreement with the EU allowing the UK to continue using its imagery. They add that the European Commission has granted licenses like this “free of charge” in the past, and this is a crucial step in hindering the black market.
Mike Ridgway, director at the Consumer Packaging Manufacturers Alliance (CPMU), an organisation which lobbies Government on regulation, says that while Australia’s photos are “very similar” to the ones provided by the EU, their cigarette packs are larger and a different shape than those used in the UK, meaning that “reproduction adjustments” would need to be made to images.
He says that having to resize photos to fit UK packs will mean the production process could be longer and more strenuous.
He agrees that “interruption” to the tobacco production chain could see an increase in “illicit trade activity”, with more counterfeits being sold, which could impact consumers, tobacco businesses and the Government, as there is no tax paid on these fake products.
“Counterfeit packs that copy authentic packs can be produced very easily now that the complexity has been taken out of the design with ‘plain packaging’ laws,” he says.
Concerns around imagery “ludicrous”
But a spokesperson at Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a cross-party campaign group against smoking, says that worries around replacing imagery are “ludicrous”, particularly regarding cost.
“Prior to the introduction of plain packaging, the industry always regularly updated its packaging,” they say. “Picture warnings save tobacco companies money because they’re much cheaper to produce than the glitzy packaging they replaced, which often had holograms and other expensive branding elements that are now prohibited.”
Deborah Arnott, CEO at ASH, adds that there will be “little change” in how tobacco products are presented visually in the case of a no-deal.
“Like the European Commission, Australia’s picture warnings are developed based on evidence of what works, are effective in reducing smoking and are regularly reviewed and updated.”
UK must commit to changing images regularly
But she adds that, going forward, the Government should commit to “regularly changing” the images, whichever library they are taken from.
“In the longer term, it is essential that [the Government] commissions a range of new images, so they can be rotated and updated to maintain their effectiveness,” she says.
Following Theresa May’s Brexit plan being rejected by members of parliament (MPs) for the second time this week, MPs will vote at 7pm tonight (13 March) on whether to leave the EU without a deal. If this is rejected, they will vote on whether to extend Article 50, delaying Brexit beyond 29 March 2019.