Open minded? Another health minister comes out for plain packaging
Saturday, May 18, 2013 at 11:09
Simon Clark

A few weeks ago, on the day of the local elections and before the Queen's Speech, I received an email.

It read:

About 30 minutes ago a man knocked on our front door. "I'm Norman Lamb, your MP. Have you voted yet today?" I shook his hand and told him that because of the smoking ban and plain packaging I wouldn't be voting for his party.

He made clear that he 'respects my opinion' (ie thinks I am wrong). But we chatted on about plain packs and he said, almost verbatim, "I can reassure you that it won't be coming in during this parliament". He made fairly clear that the preference is to wait to see the body of evidence coming from Australia/New Zealand, which he believes will come.

I had little doubt the story was genuine but I didn't publish it at the time because it was based on a private conversation.

I nevertheless took heart that it seemed to confirm reports that plain packaging would not be in the Queen's Speech.

Norman Lamb, you see, is not only a Lib Dem MP, he's also a minister at the Department of Health.

Today the Guardian reports that the very same Norman Lamb is urging the coalition "to press ahead with forcing cigarettes to be sold in plain packets to reduce sales, despite the plan being dropped from the Queen's Speech because of unease in Downing Street".

Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat, has urged ministers to make Britain the first country in Europe to adopt what he claims would become a key element of the legacy of government's time in power.

"As a liberal I would always defend someone's right to smoke, if that's what they choose to do. But, given we're dealing here with a product that kills between 80,000 and 100,000 people a year, I think it's legitimate for government to seek to control the marketing of that deadly product," Lamb told the Guardian.

"I think it would be a legacy for this government to have legislated on something which would be a landmark public health reform and to be out there in front in Europe. It's something that both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives could be very proud of," he added.

The care and support minister said he intended to keep fighting to secure the introduction of plain packs, even though it did not appear as expected in the government's legislative programme unveiled last week. David Cameron ditched it amid fears of a backbench revolt against a "nanny state" idea and tobacco industry warnings of job losses if it went ahead.

"MPs from all three parties support this, so I will continue to argue the case for us to act. There could still be an opportunity in this parliament to act and I will argue the case for it," said Lamb.

No-one can accuse Lamb of hypocrisy. He made it clear, when speaking to my correspondent, that he supports plain packaging.

Then again, having allegedly reassured a constituent that plain packaging won't be introduced in this parliament, he is now actively urging the Government (of which he is a member) to do exactly that.

Another point: we are repeatedly told that the Government has yet to make a decision, one way or the other, about plain packaging and that it continues to have an "open mind" on the subject.

Despite this, Norman Lamb becomes the second health minister to openly declare his support for the policy.

Moreover, he intends to "keep fighting" to get plain packs introduced.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt needs to get a grip on his ministers who, when they're not privately leaking information to newspapers, are in open revolt about government policy.

Meanwhile, nine months after the end of the public consultation on standardised packaging of tobacco, we are still waiting for publication of the report and official confirmation that 500,000 people signed petitions opposing plain packs whilst a relatively meagre 220,000 people supported it.

Could that be the reason it has yet to appear? Or perhaps the Department of Health is desperately hanging on for evidence from Australia that plain packaging is working as intended.

Meanwhile Norman Lamb has had his 15 seconds of fame. He must be very proud.

See: Lib Dem minister urges coalition to carry out plain cigarette packet plan

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