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Tobacco Packaging

Volume 571: debated on Thursday 28 November 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the Government’s policy on standardised packaging of tobacco products.

In accordance with the notice I gave the House yesterday afternoon, this morning I made a written statement announcing that Sir Cyril Chantler will carry out an independent review of the evidence on the impact of standardised tobacco packaging on public health.

Tobacco use, especially among children, remains one of our most significant public health challenges. Each year in England more than 300,000 children under the age of 16 try smoking for the first time. Most adults who smoke started before they were 18 years of age. As a result, we must do all we can to stop young people from taking up smoking in the first place, if we are to reduce smoking rates.

We have listened to the strong views expressed on both sides of the House, including when we debated standardised packaging in a Back-Bench business debate earlier this month, to which I responded. Many Members then told me that the evidence base for standardised packaging continued to grow and urged the Government to take action. Similarly strong views have been expressed in the other place. As a result, I believe the time is right to seek an independent view on whether the introduction of standardised packaging would be likely to have an effect on public health. In particular, I want to know the likely impact on young people.

I have asked Sir Cyril to undertake a focused review, reporting in March next year. It will be entirely independent, with an independent secretariat, and he is free to draw evidence from whatever sources he considers necessary and appropriate. It will be up to him to determine how he undertakes the review, and he will set that out in more detail in due course. As the House will know, Sir Cyril has confirmed that he has no links with the tobacco industry. The review is not a public consultation. The Government ran a full public consultation in 2012 and the responses will be available in full for the review. To maximise transparency, the Department will also publish the substantive responses received as soon as possible.

The Government will also take advantage of the opportunity offered in another place by tabling an amendment to the Children and Families Bill to provide for a regulation-making power. If, on receiving Sir Cyril’s review, the Government decide to proceed, that will allow standardised tobacco packaging to be introduced without delay. The Government have been consistent in their desire to take an evidence-based approach to public health, and we will introduce standardised tobacco packaging if, following the review and consideration of the wider issues raised, we are satisfied that there are sufficient grounds to proceed.

We have seen plenty of U-turns over the past three years, but only a Government as shambolic as this one could U-turn on a U-turn. It is not so much that they have lost their way on public health—they are running around in circles.

Will the Minister answer a straight question: does she support standardised packaging for cigarettes—yes or no? In the week running up to this being debated in the other place, does she honestly expect us to believe that this has nothing to do with the fact that the Government are on the brink of a humiliating defeat?

The Minister says that we need another review, but the Government have already had a review and the evidence is clear for all to see. Did that not already find that standardised packaging made cigarettes less attractive to young people and health warnings more effective, and did it not refute the utter falsehood that some brands are safer than others? All the royal colleges and health experts are united behind the case for standardised packaging—I commend everyone who has campaigned for this measure—but is it not the case that if the lobbying Bill goes through in its current form, it will prevent charities such as Cancer Research UK from ever raising such issues in an election year?

Is not the Prime Minister more interested in listening to Lynton Crosby and the vested interests of big tobacco than cancer charities and health experts? What further evidence does the Minister need? What do Ministers know now that they did not already know when they U-turned on this before the summer recess? Why are the Government delaying this still further? Some 79,230 children will have taken up smoking in the 139 days since the Government U-turned on standardised packaging in July, and about 70,000 more will have had their first cigarette by the time the review reports next March. We should be legislating now, not delaying.

I thought that was a rather disappointing and naive response. This is a complex area of public health policy, and it is important to follow a clear process and to follow the evidence. The hon. Lady might not believe me, but perhaps she will believe the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who in November 2009, when he was Health Secretary, wrote:

“we would need…convincing evidence showing the health benefits of this policy before it would be acceptable”.

Order. I gently say to the House that the Minister is among the most courteous of Ministers, and in fairness she deserves also to be treated with courtesy. There are strong views, but let us hear the Minister.

The Government have held a consultation, but we have not had a review before. We said in July that we would pause to consider the emerging evidence base, and that is exactly what we have done. I am happy to account for my actions, but it appears that I am being asked to account for the cynicism of the Opposition, too. This weekend sees the anniversary of the passing of the legislation in Australia, and new evidence is emerging rapidly, as was pointed out in the very good Back-Bench business debate to which I responded earlier this month, as well as in the other place, so this is the right time to do this.

Of course we have listened to what Members of the other place have said. They rightly take extremely seriously such an important public health issue as stopping children from smoking, but we have to proceed in a measured, step-by-step way to ensure that, if and when a decision is made, it will be robust and will deal with all the inevitable challenges that might come its way.

Order. We are dealing with an extremely important matter, which I judge as urgent, but we have business questions and two ministerial statements to follow, so the model is what might be called “the Gibraltar model” of Mr Nigel Evans, whereby a good exchange was had, but it was a brief one. I will not be able to accommodate everybody who wants to speak.

Idiotic, nanny state proposals such as the plain packaging of tobacco are what we expect from the Labour party. What we expect from Conservative Ministers is for them to believe in individual freedom and individual responsibility, and to stand up to the health zealots and nanny state brigade who, if they could, would ban everything and have everything in plain packaging. Will the Minister commit to sticking to those Conservative principles and to ignoring the nanny state brigade of Labour Members?

I know my hon. Friend feels strongly about this issue, but nobody is banning anything. Were the Government to proceed following receipt of the review, the proposal would be about packaging, not the ability to purchase tobacco. All the sorts of points that my hon. Friend has often articulated were well made during the consultation, which, as he knows, received an enormous response, and all the responses will be made available to Sir Cyril.

Some 190 health organisations recognise that plain packaging will cut smoking, particularly among the young, and have urged action. Is this not just a further delay while the Government get their house in order so that they know how and when to introduce the legislation that is so urgently needed?

The hon. Lady is right to say that many charities feel strongly about this issue and I was pleased that the chief executive for Action on Smoking and Health said this morning:

“This decision is a victory for public health, for common sense and for future generations”.

Smoking is a childhood addiction, not an adult choice. The announcement is welcome, in that it moves us in the right direction, but if the review should recommend what is, in my judgment, a much-needed change when it is published in March, just how quickly would the Government be able to bring in the necessary regulations?

My right hon. Friend is right that we would need to be able to act quickly if, following the recommendation, we decided to proceed. The power to make regulations is being proposed in the other place exactly so that we may move quickly at the point we receive Sir Cyril’s review. I have looked at the draft schedule, and if the Government were minded to go forward with this policy, I see no reason why it could not be put through before the end of this Parliament.

As chair of the all-party group on heart disease, I pay tribute to the work of the British Heart Foundation, Cancer UK, ASH and other campaigning organisations that have helped to bring about this U-turn. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) specifically mentioned the impact on such charities if the lobbying Bill goes through—they will be neutered and silenced in the run-up to the general election. What lessons should be learned from this?

The hon. Gentleman refers to another Bill, rather than the issue we are discussing now. I have heard none of those concerns from the charities he mentioned, which I understand have warmly welcomed today’s announcement.

I, for one, very much congratulate the Minister on this welcome news. As she well knows, the all-party group on cancer has been one of many that have argued for added urgency on this issue. The Government have listened and responded, which is a sign of strength, not weakness. To follow up a previous question, will the Minister give an assurance that the regulations will be in place before the end of this Parliament, because if the recommendations are in favour of introducing standardised packaging, they will need to be implemented quickly?

That is certainly the objective of the timetable that has been drafted, once the Government have received the review and made a decision. I see no reason why what my hon. Friend suggests could not be the case.

The Minister said that she had not held a review, but had carried out a consultation. Is that not just a pathetic excuse for inaction, and does she not accept that for every day she delays this policy, another 570 children start smoking?

We have had a consultation and now we are having a short review of the emerging evidence base. I think that that is sensible. We want to make good policy that is robust, and this is the right way to do it.

I congratulate the Minister on listening to the arguments and acting far more quickly than any Opposition Member did in 13 years. Will she assure us that the House will have the opportunity to vote in favour of standardised packaging so that we can demonstrate our cross-party support for this much-needed health measure?

I, too, welcome the Government’s U-turn. I am sure that the Minister has been following attentively the progress made on this issue by the Scottish National party Government, who have been able to make that progress because Lynton Crosby’s remit does not extend north of the border. Will she commend the SNP Government for taking the lead and work closely with Scottish Ministers to secure the best possible outcome for everyone on these islands?

I repeat that the Government are proceeding along the track that they laid out in the summer. We know that the Scottish Government have expressed clear views, and we will be working closely with all the devolved Administrations.

I welcome the statement and trust that we will see a Conservative-led Government introduce standardised packaging. When that happens, will the Minister take the opportunity to step up health education on this subject?

My hon. Friend is right to remind us all that, even if the Government decide to implement the policy at the end of the review, there will still be many other things to be done in relation to this important issue. Major public health campaigns will proceed as they have been doing under Governments of all colours.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) pointed out that 190 health organisations were in favour of standardised packaging. While I appreciate that there may be tensions within the Government, the hon. Lady is Minister for public health. Will she tell us whether any health organisation is opposed to plain packaging?

We have asked Sir Cyril to conduct an independent review and to weigh all the different evidence. I do not wish to seem to pre-empt the review, because it is important that it is independent, but I will say that I am not aware of any health organisations that are not in favour of plain packaging. Indeed, as the hon. Lady can imagine, such organisations have expressed the opposite view to me with considerable strength.

Will the Minister remind the House of all the investment that the Government have already made in anti-smoking strategies so that no one smokes out of ignorance? Does she agree that the main responsibility for children’s smoking habits lies with their parents?

Of course we want parents to set a good example to their children and to try to prevent them from starting to smoke. The important public health measures to which my hon. Friend has referred are proceeding but, sadly, a great many children start smoking at a very young age.

This is just a cynical ploy to get beyond the humiliating defeat that the Government face in the House of Lords. Notwithstanding what has been said by the Minister’s hon. Friends, no decision has been made to introduce plain packaging. Who does she think will win this war of attrition for the ear of the Prime Minister: Lynton Crosby, or both Houses of Parliament?

I could not have made myself plainer during my first session of Health questions and when I responded to the Back-Bench debate. The policy is under active consideration, and it was under active consideration before—this is evidence of that.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that Sir Cyril is not only independent of big tobacco, but independent of the health lobby?

One of the reasons we asked a distinguished paediatrician to conduct the review, rather than someone from a public health background, was that he would be able to bring a fresh mind to it. Sir Cyril will set his own terms, which he will announce in the next few weeks.

Does the Minister appreciate that one of the reasons for the scepticism among Opposition Members is that in the summer last year, either there was a U-turn or the policy was still under review. Why was an independent review not requested then? If that had happened, it would have been completed by now, and we could have gone ahead.

As Members on both sides of the House reminded me forcefully during the Back-Bench debate earlier this month, new evidence has recently emerged, and we are also coming up to the anniversary of the legislation being passed in Australia, so this is the right time to do this.

Will the Minister reassure me that this will not be the thin end of the wedge, and that the Government will not look for evidence to support the contention that selling children sweets in brightly coloured packets contributes to childhood obesity and, as a result, seek to ban such packaging?

That is a slightly different topic. I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about these issues, and he will know that, through the Government’s responsibility deal, we are working in voluntary partnership with business to make good progress on public health issues relating to obesity.

Now that the Government have started to make this U-turn on standard packaging, will they also back the amendment in the other place that would ban smoking in cars when children are present?

We are not persuaded that legislation is the right way forward on that matter. There is still a lot of room for education, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to believe, as I do, that when parents are made aware of the dangers of smoking in cars when children are present, they will wish to desist from doing so.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. In September, I visited the Cancer Research UK centre in Southampton to meet my constituent, Tim Underwood, who leads the oesophageal cancer team there. I suspect that the team will be pleased to hear today’s announcement. Will she assure us that, whatever happens at the end of this process, it will remain the Government’s intention resolutely to prevent young people from picking up this habit that kills in the first place?

Preventing children from smoking is a major priority for the Department of Health and for the Government, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that, irrespective of this piece of policy—important though it has the potential to be—the Government are committed to spending significant amounts on public health campaigns and all the other mechanisms available to us to prevent children from smoking.

The Minister keeps mentioning the evidence, but the evidence from Australia is overwhelmingly in favour of plain packaging for cigarettes, so why on earth is she waiting? She should bring in plain packaging now to save children from taking up smoking in the first place.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the evidence, as have other Members. That is exactly why we have asked someone who, with all due respect, is far more expert than he is or I am to look at the evidence and report to the Government swiftly. That will be a productive way forward. It will ensure that, however the Government decide to proceed, we do so in a way that is robust.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the EU majority decision that e-cigarettes should not come under the same regulations as medicines? Does she agree that they should be subject to the same marketing controls as cigarettes, whether that involves plain packaging or not?

The hon. Lady will know that that is the subject of negotiations, so I hope that she will forgive me if I do not comment on it further at this point.

Far from doing nothing in 13 years, the Labour Government legislated to ban smoking in public places. We said that we would need convincing evidence on plain packaging, and this Government’s own consultation has now provided that convincing evidence. What further evidence does the Minister think the review will uncover?

As I have said, I am not going to pre-empt the findings of the independent review, and I am sure that Members understand why it is important not to do so. It will be good to have a review of the evidence, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will share my confidence that the review will be extremely worth while and useful.

I confess that I enjoyed a Henri Wintermans Café Crème after breakfast this morning on the way to work. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many lawful smokers who want to be sure what they are buying? Has she made any assessment of the effect that plain packaging could have on the black market by making it easier to smuggle counterfeit cigarettes?

That point came up during the consultation. To be clear, the review that we have asked Sir Cyril to undertake will cover the public health aspects of the policy. It will then be for Ministers to decide how to take forward the findings of the review and to make policy. The points that my hon. Friend and others have made will be borne in mind at that time.

The Minister says that this is a complex matter, but I am a bit puzzled. What exactly is the downside of plain packaging, apart from fewer fags being sold?

The hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) may be aware that there has been a challenge to the policy in Australia, so it is important to proceed in a measured and evidence-based way.

The sedentary remarks of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) are almost as entertaining as those he makes when he is on his feet.

I sometimes feel sorry for the Government. We have an excellent Minister at the Dispatch Box who is listening to Parliament and asking for an independent report, yet she gets Members of Parliament complaining about that. That is ridiculous. I think I understood her to say that if regulation is to be introduced, it will be done by statutory instrument. I hope that the Government are not going to proceed in that way, because we can only reject or approve a statutory instrument—we cannot amend it. Will she think again on that point?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. The exact technicalities are still under review. As I said, we are strongly minded to use the affirmative procedure, but that matter is not completely resolved. Of course, we do have a little time, because we expect the review to report in March 2014.

What steps are being undertaken with other Departments to enforce against the illegal sale of tobacco products to young people?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the issue. He may or may not know that when I responded to a recent Adjournment debate that was secured by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), we discussed that point, and I invited trading standards officers to submit evidence on the enforceability of just those sorts of measures. I will be interested to hear from Members and others about how they think those might work.