With a national election just months away, British Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to pick a peculiar fight by attempting to ram through a bill that would require cigarettes to be sold in generic packaging without any brand markings. The effort has outraged dozens of Cameron’s own Conservatives in Parliament. and could potentially drive some voters to the alternative U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).
The move was made public last week in a surprise announcement by the country’s health minister, Jane Ellison. The law, if passed, would require all cigarette boxes to contain generic imagery and text warning about the dangers of smoking, while the manufacturer and cigarette type will be named in plain text.
Advocates argue that plain packaging makes cigarettes less appealing, especially to young people, and will therefore improve public health by cutting smoking rates. The effort is supposedly intended to keep the Labour Party from successfully campaigning on health matters, but the effort is instead igniting an internal party revolt, showing the potential electoral hazards for Cameron from being too moderate on too many issues. According to The Telegraph, more than 100 Tory MP’s are planning to oppose the measure– about a third of the party.
“I think the prime minister must have taken leave of his senses,” said MP Philip Davies, who also slammed the plan as “the nanny state going completely mad” and “a counterfeiter’s dream,” according to City A.M.
Another anonymous MP was even more straightforward about the proposal: “Four letter word, starts in S and ends in T.”
For some, the proposal is just another sign that Cameron’s government has little claim to belonging on the center-right.
“We need some authentic Conservative bloody policies,” one MP complained to The Telegraph.
Opponents argue that besides being excessive government meddling, the law will also lead to a boom in illegal counterfeit cigarettes since the generic packaging will be far easier to imitate. The ban could also spark a lawsuit that would lead to billions of pounds being paid to tobacco companies as compensation for the loss of their intellectual property.
The measure could even have an impact on British trade. Australia’s left-wing government passed its own plain packaging law in 2011, and in 2013 a complaint was lodged with the World Trade Organization by Cuba, Ukraine, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, arguing the law violates principles of international trade. If successful (a final ruling isn’t expected until 2016), Australian exports could be slapped with additional tariffs, and the U.K. would expose itself to the same risk if this law is implemented.
Despite the party rebellion, support from Labour and the Liberal Democrats is expected to be enough for the proposal to become law.
That doesn’t mean all will work out for Cameron, however. The push is especially risky now that UKIP is putting stronger and stronger pressure on Conservatives from the right. UKIP has vocally opposed plain packaging, and a source familiar with the situation told The Daily Caller News Foundation that party officials think the spat could substantially increase their appeal with disaffected Tory voters.
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