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Cigarette Packaging

Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

May I first thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting us this debate this evening? Despite the lateness of the hour, I am pleased to see you honouring our debate with your presence and lending it the importance that we attach to it.

I want to emphasise at the beginning that the anti-smoking campaign and public health campaigns have always been and will remain all-party issues. There are no party politics as far as I am concerned. It is good to see the Minister with responsibility for public health in the Chamber, preparing to reply to the debate. Like all those who have been involved in such campaigns over the years, I am pleased that the Government have renewed the importance that the previous Government, individuals and parties have attached to reducing smoking through public health campaigns.

We should recognise at the outset how effective public health campaigns can be. They have been effective in respect, for example, of seat belts as well as in reducing the prevalence of smoking. It is fair to say that the previous “Smoking Kills” campaign was extremely successful—smoking fell by half among children and by a quarter among adults. However, smoking remains the major cause of premature death and disease, killing more than 100,000 people in the UK each year, more than the next six causes of preventable death put together. However, the rate of decline has slowed in recent years, as the Government pointed out in their paper on the consultation, in which they say that since 2007 the figures for the prevalence of smoking have hardly moved. That stubborn resistance to getting the figure below 21% means that the issue is not going to go away. We have to confront it. As the Government’s paper rightly says, we have to see what further measures can be taken that are effective and acceptable to the country as a whole.

The other important point about the smoking campaign that we have to bear in mind is that although public awareness is vital to its success, the problem starts with children, usually before they are 18. Indeed, two thirds of smokers first pick up the habit when they are under 18. Every year, 340,000 children in the UK are tempted to try smoking. Although these facts are well known, they bear repeating. They provide the background to our debate, compelling our attention and bringing us to the consideration of plain packaging. However, “plain packaging” can be a misleading term, as some right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out. It is anything but plain in Australia, for example, which is ahead of us in pursuing a plain packaging strategy. Indeed, it can lend itself to the sorts of graphic images on the covers of cigarette packages that have proved so successful and that were at the centre of the effective “Smoking Kills” campaign. Those of us who back that approach—I shall call it “plain packaging” for the sake of simplicity—believe that it is the next effective step that could be taken, following the ad ban, putting tobacco out of sight in shops, increasing the age of sale from 16 to 18, and increasing the size and impact of the warnings on packs.

It is remarkable that the figure still stands at 21%, despite all that we have done and despite the great public support that the campaigns against smoking have successfully awakened. We realise that getting rid of the glitzy packaging in itself is unlikely to have much impact on addicted smokers. However, the systematic review of the evidence that the Government published yesterday, when they launched this welcome consultation period, suggests that there is at least some evidence that plain packs are less attractive and appealing, particularly to young people.

Most sensible people would welcome the Government’s consultation on this serious issue. However, one consequence of plain packaging is that thousands of people could lose their jobs printing cigarette packets. May I therefore ask the Government, through my hon. Friend, to explore all options to safeguard the jobs of those who print the cigarette packets?

I am grateful for that intervention. The concern about jobs in the printing and packaging industry will be shared by many, particularly Members from Northern Ireland, who still have a fairly large tobacco-related industry in their constituencies. We can come to that in due course, but the fact is that none of us wants to stop the progressive reduction in smoking, and if it seems a reasonable presumption that reducing the attractiveness of the packaging will help, we must face up to the jobs implications. However, I hasten to add that, having considered the issue in the round, I do not think that the implications will be so severe, because after all, as I have pointed out already, we are not talking about “plain” packaging. The same inventiveness and printing of graphic images that have already been brought to bear will continue; indeed, they will be put to much better use than trying to encourage youngsters to try smoking because it seems attractive or because cigarettes are packaged as lipstick, or any of the other advertising gimmicks that have been used.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the Floor of the House this evening, as many people are concerned about it. Cancer Research UK has been working with its campaigning partners to explain why plain packs are needed and to rebut the myths circulated by the industry. Does he feel that plain packaging will reduce the number of deaths resulting from smoking? If it saves lives, the Government need to introduce plain packaging legislation as soon as possible.

The cancer campaign’s research to which the hon. Gentleman refers has come out strongly in favour of the proposal, as have Action on Smoking and Health and most other related parts of the health industry, in the public sector and the NHS in particular. They have all made the case that the proposal is plausible and that it should represent the next push in a campaign that has been effective but has now faltered. Since 2007, the figures have levelled out; there has been no further reduction in smoking. I think that that will come as a surprise to many people, and it makes the next step an important one. In my view, the next useful step would be plain packaging.

I understand the argument that my hon. Friend is putting forward, and we all understand the horrors of tobacco. He is talking about the hard core of 21% who continue to smoke. Is the problem not going to be that, given the levels of duty and taxation, as well as plain packaging, people are going to be forced into the black market? A number of people in my constituency deal in illicit tobacco and in buying cigarettes at a very low price. How can we get this right?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing up that point. It was the staggering figures about the illicit tobacco trade in Coventry that first prompted me to consider that there could be adverse, unintended consequences to the measure that I am proposing with the good intention of reducing smoking.

Let me give the House the figures for the illicit trade in Coventry. My constituency is one of the three that make up the city of Coventry. In 2011, an Empty Pack survey was carried out. Its evidence was pretty reliable; I do not think that it has been seriously disputed. I am pleased to see the Minister nodding in agreement. It found that the illicit trade had increased from 14.5% of total sales to 30.3%, meaning that one in three cigarettes were being sold on the illicit market. That is well above the national average. The figure for the west midlands was only 17.2%, and the national average was 15%. Those are both high figures, but the problem is clearly approaching epidemic proportions in Coventry. I therefore remain concerned that we should do everything we can to prevent the problem from spreading further and that we should do so through the introduction of plain packaging.

When we consider all the covert measures that have been tried out by the Government, with the industry reluctantly co-operating, we realise that the present system cannot be very effective if the figures are as high as they are. If the figure is already 30%, it is hard to see how our countermeasures are being effective against the illicit trade in tobacco. We therefore have to take another approach.

That idea led me to read about what is happening in the north of England. There is a strong argument by the industry that the problems that have been mentioned could indeed happen. There is a plausible presumption that they might. In the north, people have realised that the present measures are ineffective, and they have set up the north of England tackling illicit tobacco for better health programme. It has brought together key agencies such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the UK Border Agency, the police, local authority trading standards departments and the NHS to take part in a comprehensive action plan covering all those areas of government. It illustrates linked-up government working together at local and regional level. At the conclusion of this debate, I shall be writing to Coventry city council to recommend that it initiates and co-ordinates such an attack on what is clearly a big problem in Coventry and the west midlands.

It concerns me greatly that the hon. Gentleman appears to be advancing an argument that is based on a wing and a prayer, and a proposition that he hopes will get rid of counterfeiting. Is he not concerned that the counterfeiting of cigarettes across the United Kingdom amounts to a multi-billion trade—worth £3 billion at the last count—by criminals? They are not just any criminals; they are among the nastiest, most contemptible criminals in the world. The proposal that the hon. Gentleman is advancing is not going to stop them, and the idea that plain packaging will do away with the problem is not being advanced here tonight.

I am grateful for that intervention. I do not think by any measure that I could be thought to be suggesting that plain packaging is going to be a magic wand to deal with counterfeiting in itself. It is not, so I agree that it will not be enough in itself. The point I am making—it seems obvious to me—is that the extent to which measures are failing at the moment clearly shows that prevalence is increasing and will increase further unless we get effective action by Government agencies. This is where the Minister has a key role to play in the Department. I shall try to prompt local government in Coventry and the west midlands to get active in this respect, but the Minister has an overriding responsibility to deal with the problem for the whole country, as it is indeed a major problem.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is making a powerful case, with which I completely agree. Does he agree that one problem is that the industry has gone about deliberately marketing its products to young people in the form of lipsticks, CD covers, thins and other ways that attract young people to take up smoking, which they can then never cure?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, and I am very pleased to say so. He mentions some of the advertising gimmicks and marketing subterfuges to which the industry has stooped. The evidence that this is achieving success lies in the fact that two thirds of those currently smoking started when they were younger than 18. That is why we have to deal with this matter and take measures to deal more effectively with the counterfeiting problem.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Some countries have managed to deal with counterfeiting quite well. There are barcodes on all cigarette packages; the problem is the policing of them. Counterfeit cigarettes are not all sold out of car boots, as they are sold in some retail outlets, too. We need enforcement in those areas and to confiscate any smuggled cigarettes.

I agree entirely that the barcoding and other anti-illicit sales measures are not being policed readily enough, which brings me back to the need for Government action at the local level in enforcing the required measures. That can be done only when the group of agencies that I mentioned work together with that sole purpose in a truly linked-up manner. It will not work on any other basis.

I have given way many times, but I know that our debate is restricted to half an hour. I am sure that we will have occasion in future to debate the issue more fully on the Floor of the House almost certainly at the end of the consultation period. I look forward to those debates and to my participation in them. Let me make my own position clear, as all right hon. and hon. Members, the Government, the Opposition and other parties will have to do the same. On balance, I believe that plain packaging would help to reduce smoking, which we desperately need to do. Indeed, I would go further and say that plain packaging could be an important milestone in making cigarettes and their brands pariah products—a status that is richly deserved.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) on securing this debate on a topic so vital to the health of the nation. The number of Members who have stayed here late to listen and, indeed, to contribute to this debate is a testament to that.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, smoking kills more than 100,000 people in the UK every year. Fully half of all long-term smokers will die prematurely from a smoking-related disease. Smoking, of course, harms those around smokers, too. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that about 2 million children currently live in a household where they are regularly exposed to cigarette smoke. The cost of this level of ill health is huge. In England, about one in 20 of all hospital admissions among adults aged 35 and over is down to smoking. Of course, it is not just a question of the financial cost; there is a human, and often tragic, cost as well.

Although smoking rates have declined over past decades, in recent years the fall has lost momentum. Most smokers take up the habit before they turn 18. This year, in England alone, 330,000 children under the age of 16 will try smoking for the first time. Reducing the uptake of smoking by children and young people remains one of the key public health goals. We want to prevent those young people from turning into adult smokers. Most smokers say that they want to stop. Quitting can be difficult, but smokers who kick the habit for good can quickly reduce their risk of contracting smoking-related diseases and lead longer, healthier lives, irrespective of their age.

Our approach to reducing tobacco use is comprehensive and evidence-based, and much has already been achieved, including—as the hon. Member for Coventry North West pointed out—many cross-party initiatives. We have introduced a comprehensive ban on advertising, and picture warnings on packs; we have raised the age for the sale of tobacco to 18; we have ended the sale of tobacco from vending machines; from April the open display of tobacco products in supermarkets has been banned; tobacco taxes were increased significantly again in this year’s Budget; and, of course, there is a ban on smoking in public places. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) for his role in the introduction of that ban when he was Chairman of the Select Committee on Health.

It is recognised that the UK has the best “stop smoking” services in the world, and I feel proud when I go abroad and am congratulated on all that we have achieved. However, we clearly need to do more. Given the existence of all the measures to which I have referred, it is surprising that about 20% of people still smoke.

I congratulate the Minister on the work that she is doing. However, as she is aware, a small number of people will continue to smoke because of the illicit trade. What does the Minister think we can do to stop that trade?

I shall say something about the illicit trade shortly, because it is an important issue. However, it should not be confused with the separate issue of plain packaging, which is also important and on which we are to consult.

In March last year, we published “Healthy lives, healthy people: a tobacco control plan for England”, which described how our programme of tobacco control would be delivered over the next five years within the framework of the new public health system. The tobacco control plan included a commitment to consult on options to reduce the promotional impact of tobacco packaging, including standardised packaging. There is strong, consistent evidence that the advertising and promotion of tobacco can influence young people in particular, from the first puff to full addiction.

I am pleased to say that yesterday we published a UK-wide consultation document, with the agreement of the devolved Administrations. The consultation will consider what measures could be taken to restrict or prohibit the use of logos, colours, brand images or promotional information on packaging other than brand and product names displayed in a standard colour and font style. At this stage, we have an open mind about the introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco products. We hope that the consultation will help us to establish whether there is evidence that it would have an additional public health benefit, over and above the existing tobacco control initiatives.

I do not approach this issue with particularly strong views in either direction, but it occurs to me that if I were a counterfeiter, I would probably welcome the introduction of plain packaging. I know that that is a bit of a euphemism, but for want of a better term, I would welcome it, because I would find it easier to copy than other packaging.

It also concerns me that in the illicit trade some really nasty substances go into the cigarettes. Tobacco is bad enough, but the other substances that are added are even worse.

I will come on to deal specifically with that point. Like the hon. Member for Coventry North West, I am sure that this will not be the last debate we have on this issue. It will be important to dispel some of the myths, and this week Cancer Research UK has put out a good piece of information that does so.

As I say, the Government have an open mind, and it is important that we hear everyone’s views. We will keep that open mind until the consultation closes. The consultation has four aims: to reduce the appeal of tobacco products to consumers; to increase the effectiveness of the health warnings; to reduce the ability of tobacco packaging to mislead consumers about the harmful effects of smoking; and to have a positive effect on smoking-related attitudes, beliefs, intentions and behaviours, particularly among young people and children. The consultation will be open from 16 April to 10 July, and I encourage all hon. Members, and any other person, business or organisation with an interest, to respond to it.

As chair of the Unite union parliamentary group, which includes an awful lot of health service workers, who agree wholeheartedly with what the Government are trying to achieve, I wrote to the Department some weeks ago seeking a meeting to discuss the jobs implications. Is there anything the Minister can do to expedite a response to that request?

I will certainly look into the matter, and I apologise if the hon. Gentleman has not received a timely response. I would hope that we would always give him such a response, and I will make sure that he gets one. He mentions jobs, but we have also to consider the human costs of smoking-related disease. If breadwinners in families die prematurely, that has an implication for families. This is not just about jobs.

Any decisions to take further policy action on tobacco packaging will, as I say, be taken only after full consideration of the consultation responses and of any other relevant information or evidence, which is emerging all the time. In addition, we will explore any implications relating to the sale of illicit tobacco, a matter that has been raised. I point out that existing packs are very easy to forge; covert markings are already used to distinguish illicit cigarettes and this proposal will make absolutely no difference to the situation.

Our tobacco control plan explicitly complements Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Agency’s strategy to tackle the illicit trade in tobacco products, which was published in April 2011. There is absolutely no room for complacency, but thanks to the hard work of HMRC, local councils, the NHS and civil society, good progress is being made in reducing the amount of illegal tobacco products finding their way on to the market. According to the latest information collected by HMRC, fewer people are using illicit tobacco. Illicit sales of cigarettes were down to 10% in 2010 from 21% in 2000—that is a marked reduction. The figure for hand-rolling tobacco remains high, at 47%, but it has reduced from 61%. So the trend is in the right direction. I particularly wish to compliment the north of England tackling illicit tobacco for better health programme—some of these programmes have ghastly names, do they not? None the less, it is an example of how organisations can work together to tackle the supply of and demand for illicit tobacco. In coming to a view on the impact of standardised packaging, the availability of illicit tobacco will obviously be important, but we do want to see good, hard evidence on this.

I thank the Minister for being very generous with her time. Has she given any thought to the view that if the Government are ultimately successful and stop people smoking, the Treasury will lose £11.1 billion in resources? How will that gap be filled?

I will happily cross that bridge when we get to it; of course the Treasury would lose revenue, but as Minister with responsibility for public health, my aim is to improve the public’s health. Premature deaths would be prevented, and there is a huge human cost, let alone the financial cost to families, of people dying early.

Under the terms of the World Health Organisation’s framework convention on tobacco control, to which the UK is a signatory, we will be asking all respondents to consultations on tobacco control measures, including the consultation on tobacco packaging, to disclose whether they have any direct or indirect links to the tobacco industry. Responses from the tobacco industry, or from those with links to the industry, will always be carefully considered alongside other views received.

I hope Members will make their constituents aware of the consultation. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) raised the issue of jobs, and we must take that into account. We must also make sure that this consultation is real and meaningful and that the public know that we value their input.

I welcome having had a chance to discuss this matter, and I hope this will not be the last opportunity to do so. I look forward to hearing the views of all Members.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.