Former police officers in the UK have warned that plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes will play into the hands of counterfeiters.
In a letter to The Telegraph newspaper, Sir Ian Johnston - who had been chief constable of the British Transport Police - and other senior figures who have left the police force write that "it makes no sense to introduce legislation that would in effect make tobacco packaging easier to copy and lead to more counterfeit products hitting the streets in Britain."
The letter comes as the UK government is planning to move ahead with plans to introduce plain, non-branded packaging for cigarettes and other smoking products in May 2016, to coincide with the implementation of the EU Tobacco Products Directive (TBD) which was adopted last March.
Anti-smoking campaigners have welcomed the move, arguing that 'glamorous' cigarette branding encourages people to smoke, with 80 per cent of new smokers starting before the age of 18.
That view is backed up by the World Health Organization (WHO), which recently reported research indicating that people were less likely to buy cigarettes in generic livery, even when offered at half the price of a regular pack.
Despite the claimed health benefits, the former police officers are not convinced plain packaging is wise.
"Our concern is very much related to the impact this move will have on crime," write Sir Ian et al, noting that according to the government’s own figures, tobacco smuggling costs £2bn a year and those who smuggle tobacco products are often involved in other forms of serious crime.
Introducing plain packaging "will place further pressure on law enforcement at a time when resources are already dwindling," they conclude.
Public Health Minister Jane Ellison announced the government's intention to bring forward the legislation before the end of the current parliament last month, saying the health benefits outweigh any risks.
However, a KPMG study carried out in Australia following its introduction of standardised packaging for tobacco products in 2012 indicated that the proportion of illicit tobacco products rose following its introduction from 11.8 per cent to 13.3 per cent in 2013. Australia remains the only country in the world that has adopted the plain packaging measure to date.
The government also insists there is no impediment to adding safety features than can help the public and officials distinguish between genuine and fake cigarette packs, although measures such as tamper-evident closures, unique serial numbers on packs and authentication features - mandared by the TBD - are another source of contention.
The tobacco industry is trying to push forward its own security feature - a coding approach for packs and cartons known as Codentify - although critics say it does not allow full traceability and would involve separate data storage for each manufacturer rather than a central repository which they claim does not meet the spirit of the TBD.