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Volume 485: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2008

Reducing smoking is a public health priority for the Government. We will bring forward legislation to remove the display of tobacco from retail environments and tighten requirements on vending machines. Both policies primarily aim to protect young people from smoking. Protecting young people will also be a key theme in our new tobacco control strategy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that very positive response. Does he recall the private Member’s Bill that I introduced in October 2005, entitled the Age of Sale of Tobacco Bill, in which I proposed to raise the age for smoking from 16 to 18? That proposal was later incorporated into the Health Bill, I am glad to say. Is he also aware that, in Barnsley, one third of all smokers under 18 buy their cigarettes illegally from what are known—for want of a better expression—as the local fag houses? The problem is so acute that Barnsley council has set up a tobacco task group to look at the issue. What more can the Government do to stop the illegal sale of tobacco to young people?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his sterling work over a long period of time to get the age of sale increased to 18. He asks what more we can do. From April next year, the “three strikes and you’re out” rule will come in. If any retailer is caught selling cigarettes to under-age children three times, they will not be allowed to continue retailing. Other measures to tackle illicit tobacco are important, particularly in the context of the famous Barnsley fag houses that we are now learning about. Micro-chipping illicit cigarettes is an important development from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for example. There is a whole range of steps that should be taken, but that should not detract from the public health initiatives that we are taking in removing tobacco from the point of sale and ensuring that we take action to regulate vending machines.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s proposed legislation, which offers the prospect of real and lasting progressive change for the better. Will he tell the House what steps he is taking to enlist the services of some of our sporting icons—the Olympic gold medallists spring readily to mind—in trying to persuade young people of the dangers of smoking and the benefits of abstinence?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for our proposals. He has raised an important point. We know that there is an issue about young people smoking. On average, 10 per cent. of 11 to 15-year-olds smoke, but almost one in five 15-year-old girls smoke. They take up smoking—as most of us did in our youth—because they see role models and people whom they admire smoking. The message from Olympians and others, which we will ensure is strongly put forward, will help in that regard. The research evidence clearly shows that the only place where tobacco can now be advertised is on point-of-sale displays and that that gives young people the impression that smoking is normal. That is what we are seeking to address with these proposals.

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the proposals, does my right hon. Friend accept that carrying out the proposed work will involve costs to small shopkeepers? Does he have an assessment of those costs, and does he have any plans to compensate retailers for them?

I accept that there are issues for small retailers, and of course there will be a cost. The Save Our Shop campaign is the brainchild of the Tobacco Retailers Association, which is an offshoot of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, which represents Imperial Tobacco, Gallahers and others in the smoking industry. The campaign is estimating the cost at something like—

This might be totally irrelevant to the question that my hon. Friend asked, but the campaign has put the cost at something like £6,000. There is no evidence whatever for that. The evidence from the countries that have introduced these measures is that there is a maximum cost of £1,000. In Canada, it was £500. The cost of putting up the displays is met by the tobacco manufacturers—by the cigarette companies themselves. We will of course offer assistance to small businesses. That is why we are saying that this measure will not be introduced for small shops until 2013. That will give us plenty of time to have a full consultation and to ensure that this will not damage those businesses.

I also welcome the steps taken by the Government further to reduce the damage done by smoking-related diseases, but will the Secretary of State reflect on his decision not to make progress with one proposition that achieved 98 per cent. support in the consultation exercise—namely, the proposition that tobacco products should be sold in plain packaging? That seems to have been parked for the time being by the Government. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is not ruling out considering that matter and that there remains a strong possibility of introducing it at some point?

The right hon. Gentleman has welcomed—indeed, two Opposition Members have welcomed—the proposals, unlike the Conservative Front-Bench team. I heard the argument from the Conservative Front Bench in last week’s Queen’s Speech debate that there was no evidence base for the proposals. I have to say, however, that despite the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is quite right about the huge response in favour of plain packaging, there is no evidence base that it actually reduces the number of young children smoking. We want to keep that under review, and when there is an evidence base for it, it could well be another important measure to meet our goal, which is to reduce the number of young people smoking.

As the chairman of the all-party group on smoking and health, I warmly welcome the proposals. There will not be evidence on plain packaging now, as we are the first country to suggest the measure, so it needs to be piloted in some way. May I say to the Secretary of State that I was disappointed in one aspect of the announcement—the failure to abolish vending machines, which are used as the medium of sale for fewer than 1 per cent. of all cigarettes? The suggestion that we can somehow tighten up to minimise the number of young people buying from vending machines is likely to prove a dead end. The sooner we introduce the abolition, the better.

I understand my hon. Friend’s argument. We will take a power in the proposed Bill to ban vending machines. We were persuaded during the consultation, however, that there are other measures to restrict young people’s access to vending machines without banning them. I do not think that Governments should move to banning things if there is another alternative. We were persuaded of the alternatives such as carrying out an age check before giving tokens to use in vending machines and other methods that have been used successfully to restrict access by young people. It is sane and rational to try those out first, to have the power to ban in the legislation if necessary and to move towards a ban if the other measures do not work.

The Secretary of State knows that we want to proceed on the basis of evidence and he has appealed to evidence. Last Thursday, he told the House:

“The number of young smokers in Canada… was reduced by 32 per cent. among 15 and 19-year-olds as a result of the implementation of the measure.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 724.]

Well, I asked the House of Commons Library to look at the statistics from Canada and it says that the tobacco display ban was not introduced in all provinces; that it was introduced only in Manitoba and Saskatchewan; and that since the tobacco display ban was introduced, there were no statistically significant results for any reduction in the number of young people smoking in either of those provinces. Will the Secretary of State simply apologise for giving the House an inaccurate presentation of the data on Canada and will he put a note in the Library explaining his basis for the proposition that there is a proven reduction in young people smoking?

That is an extraordinary position for the Opposition Front-Bench team to take, particularly when we have produced the research from the British Heart Foundation—

Well, if that is shredding—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should hang on before he talks about shredding things.

What Cancer Research UK’s extensive evidence shows—and it was all produced during the consultation period—is this: young people are more receptive than adults to tobacco advertising; being exposed to tobacco advertising and/or promotion increases the likelihood that a young person will take up smoking; and large displays of tobacco convey the notion that smoking is common. In Canada, 12 out of 13 provinces have introduced this legislation—and they have introduced it because there is absolute evidence, as there is in Iceland and other countries that have introduced it, that it reduces the number of young people smoking.

Thailand and the British Virgin Islands, if the hon. Gentleman wants an exhaustive list, but as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, the point is this: someone has to be in the vanguard, which is why Australia and New Zealand are preparing to introduce such legislation. It is hugely disappointing that there is not a political consensus across the three parties, because the evidence is clear, the evidence is there.